Five-Oh at Your Door

“Knock, Knock.” “Who’s there?” “The Police.” “The Police who?” “The Police who will take advantage of your lack knowledge of your civil rights to gain entry into your place and find incrimi-nating evidence that will ruin your life.” “Oh.” This is no joke. You would be surprised to learn that the majority of students (and for that matter people in general) are caught for underage drinking or posses-sion due to legal searches by polices con-ducted without warrants. Warrentless searches can only be con-ducted on your person when an officer is making a valid arrest, when there is exi-gent circumstances, when something is in “plain view”, or if consent has been given. Unless that criterion is met, police are required to produce a warrant issued by a judge to conduct a search of your prem-ises. Any request for a warrant must be supported by “probable cause.” Only a judge can determine wheth-er there is probable cause to conduct a search, not a police officer. This is a very important distinction that is often over-looked, or not fully understood, by many victims of police searches. Let me now illustrate this point through a description of a typical scenario in Burl-ington. It’s about 11:30 pm on a Thursday night and you and your friends are all having a drink and watching a snowboarding video. The police show up to your apartment for an apparent noise violation. You open the door and the officers explain to you why they are there “we had a complaint about the noise coming from your apartment.” More often then not this will be followed by “we’d like to take a look around to make sure that everyone is all right,” or the fa-mous “I detect a faint odor of marijuana.” I say that the best way to deal with such a situation is to calmly step outside and close the door behind you. Explain to the police that they can write you a ticket for a noise violation but that they are not al-lowed into your place without a warrant. Then it becomes a matter of whether or not a judge will grant a warrant to search your house for a gram or two of pot after being disturbed at 11:30 pm by a cop re-sponding to a noise violation that thinks he smells some herb. Remember to close your curtains be-cause if you can see your bong from the sidewalk or front poarch, it is in plain view, and the police would not need a warrant to enter your apartment and bust you. This is by no means meant to give you the reader legal advice. I’m not a lawyer, and every situation is different. This is simply a reminder to everyone that they have rights and they should become edu-cated about those rights. The next time that a police officer stops you on the street, or shows up at your door; be respectful, but also be persistent that the officer produce a warrant before any search is conducted. I imagine that your lawyer will have a much easier time challenging the validity of a warranted search through the dimen-sions of probable cause then defending a client who allowed the police to search their person or home. Don’t take my word for it. The Univer-sity provides free legal advice to all stu-dents from private practice lawyers from Burlington. If you are in trouble with the University or in criminal matters (or just have a legal question) stop by Student Le-gal Services at B-160 Billings (the SGA of-fices), talk to an intern, and get real advice from real lawyers.