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When can law enforcement legally enter your private residence?

As most people are aware, the Fourth Amendment limits the ability of the state to search a person or private property and also protects against unfair or unnecessary seizure of property. Unfortunately, over the years, the Fourth Amendment and the protections it affords have been eroded both by common law enforcement practices and court precedent.

It's important for all citizens to understand their legal rights, including when it's legal for law enforcement to search your home. After all, if you don't understand your civil liberties, how can you possibly stand up for them?

What does the Fourth Amendment do?

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments) got created to protect individuals and their rights from abuse by the state (government). After decades of people getting subjected to unfair and unreasonable searches by British soldiers, early lawmakers wanted to push back. The Fourth Amendment got written to protect those who live in the United States from abusive and questionable practices by law enforcement.

Many people believe that this means law enforcement needs a warrant to enter and search their homes. That isn't actually the case in many situations. You can deny police entry or ignore their knocking, but they might come inside anyway.

Police don't actually need a warrant to enter your home

In order to legally enter your home without your permission, law enforcement officials require either a warrant or reasonable suspicion that a crime is taking place inside. For example, if police chase a suspect to a home, they can enter the home without permission if they believe the person they were pursuing is inside.

Similarly, if law enforcement see, hear or smell something that seems to be illegal, they can also enter a home without a warrant or permission. Smells associated with the manufacturing of drugs or screams for help are great examples of reasonable suspicion.

Think twice before trying to destroy that evidence!

In 2011, the United State Supreme court ruled in Kentucky Vs. King that police could enter a home if they suspect evidence is getting destroyed. That means that the sound of a garbage disposal, a paper shredder or, in this case, a toilet flushing, is enough reason for law enforcement to forcibly enter your home without your consent. In the King case, police followed a suspect to an apartment building but then approached the wrong apartment. When they heard a toilet flush, they broke down the door, eventually arresting and charging people in the apartment. The Supreme Court said that was okay.

Reasonable suspicion looks a little different in Colorado these days, due to the legalization of recreational marijuana. Colorado courts have ruled that the smell of marijuana is not sufficient reason to search a car, and that practice could easily extend to private residences as well. However, smells associated with meth or other drugs, as well as sounds that indicate a crime is happening, could still allow law enforcement to enter your home without your permission or a warrant.

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