Can police enter your apartment if you aren’t there?

Perhaps you spent your freshman year at the University of Wisconsin living in one of the school’s residence halls. This year, you and one or more of your friends decided to get your own apartment off campus. You all signed a lease and moved in as you started another year of classes.

Even with roommates, you have more privacy and don’t have to share a bathroom with several people, but you can still quickly get to UW for your classes. Then, for whatever reason, you come home to find that police searched your apartment as part of an investigation. You weren’t home to give your permission for the search, so now you need to know who let them in and whether the search was legal.

Can your roommate consent to a search?

If one or more of your roommates were home at the time, all police needed was someone to consent to the search. As long as the roommate that let the police in is on the lease, that consent is enough to allow a search. However, a search conducted under these circumstances can only occur in the common areas of your apartment such as the living room, kitchen and a shared bathroom.

If you have your own bedroom, police cannot search it with only the consent of your roommate. The law considers that your private space, and only you can provide police with permission to search it. Of course, if police have a valid search warrant signed by a judge, police do not need your or your roommate’s permission to enter.

Can your landlord consent to a search?

If no one is home, your landlord cannot let police in to search your apartment without a search warrant unless they hear someone asking for help, it sounds like fighting is going on or they hear what they believe to be gunshots coming from inside your apartment. While your lease may provide a landlord with the right to enter in an emergency, police at your door does not qualify without a valid search warrant or one of the above circumstances.

What happens next?

If you question whether police had the right to search your apartment and your private room, you may want to find out the answer as quickly as possible. Any alleged evidence of a crime found during the search could end up in the hands of prosecutors who will use it against you in court unless the judge deems it inadmissible for some reason. Not having a legal right to conduct the search would probably qualify.

In any case, if this is the first time you discovered that police are conducting an investigation involving you, or even if you already knew, you may want to take immediate steps to protect your rights.