Welcome to "Lawyer Says," our new column where JC Law attorneys field real questions asked by Marylanders from various websites around the internet.
This week, our criminal lawyers respond to a property owner wondering if the police can legally enter their property without a warrant.
The Question: Can the police legally enter my property without my permission or a warrant?
So, a little background. My husband and my mother passed away within 12 days of each other last year, and it has been really tough for me - being a widow in my early 30s. I was already dealing with some mental health issues (yes, I am getting help from a psych, therapist and meds). As a result, managing my depression has been far more difficult and my house just sort of turned into a mess-mostly just trash like empty boxes and bags and a lot of clutter- nothing unsanitary.
Yesterday, the police and animal control showed up at my door, stating that a complaint had been made and they needed to inspect the property. Because of the mess, they ended up removing my cats (4 adults and 5 kittens). They noted that all the animals are extremely healthy, sociable and well-cared for. I'm told I can get them back after cleaning the house (which I have already started with the help of friends).
Here's the part where I need legal advice - I asked who filed the complaint and was told I could get a copy of the complaint via the FOIA act. This morning, I got an email from the town code enforcement officer. In his email, [he] stated, "As far as the 'Freedom of Information Act' this is how it was explained to me. There was no complaint. The Chief of Police noticed that you had mail piled up in the mailbox and proceeded to do a welfare check. According to him, he knocked on the front door and upon receiving no answer opened the door and called for you. Again upon receiving no answer he entered the property. Upon seeing the condition of the front room of the property he left the interior and proceeded to do an inspection around the outside."
This officer entered my property without permission or a warrant because my mailbox was full. As a result of what he saw upon entering my property illegally, he called animal control and had my animals removed. Do I have any legal recourse here?
The Answer: Yes, the police can enter properties without permission – under very specific circumstances.
First of all, we extend our condolences to the individual who originally posted this question. We hope they have found peace and happiness since they asked their legal question to the Internet at large.
Back to the matter at hand, this Marylander has it (mostly) right: The police generally need either a warrant or the property owner's permission to enter and conduct an investigation. This right is even enshrined in the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights in Amendment IV:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
So, this police officer broke the law, right? Well, not so much.
See, there's that pesky "unreasonable searches and seizures" clause that offers one huge asterisk on the whole legal concept of no entry without permission. Many lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts over the last 200 years, basically asking, "Wait, so is this unreasonable? Is this unreasonable? What about this!?"
In legalese, this "special exceptions" idea is known as "exigent circumstances."
There's a "likelihood" that the person they're chasing will get away if they're not "swiftly apprehended;" and
The officer's "reasonableness of [...] attitude and conduct is demonstrated through circumstances demonstrating a peaceable entry."
That last bullet is probably the exception under which the police officer in question entered the property. According to the town code enforcement officer, the police officer:
Noticed that the mailbox was full, and wanted to make sure whoever was home was alright as part of a welfare check.
They knocked and didn't hear a response.
They then entered the front of the house and immediately exited after seeing the condition of the first room, then did an inspection of the surrounding property.
They returned later with an animal control officer out of concern for the animals seen on the property.
The police officer seemingly performed a decent amount of due diligence prior to entering the home, didn't break down the front door with a battering ram, and otherwise "demonstrat[ed] a peaceable entry."
So no, it's unlikely that this officer would get in trouble, legally or otherwise, for entering the house without a warrant or the owner'spermission -- especially when other officials deemed the situation bad enough to remove nine cats from the property until it was cleaned up.
In the meantime, we hope their house has since been tidied up and their animals have come home for good!
Our automatic disclaimer: We're lawyers, but not necessarily your lawyer, and do not represent the individual who asked this question. We're providing this information for general educational purposes based on the publicly available information provided by the anonymous Internet user. Any number of details may change how this individual's attorney may pursue this legal situation, differently from how we suppose above. If you have a similar question, then you should consult with a lawyer about your specific situation to get a "real" response!