If police have a valid search warrant for your property, then they can conduct a search whether you have a no trespassing sign or not. But what if the police don’t have a search warrant? Can they approach your house and knock on the door?
By law, the front yard of your home (legally described as the “curtilage”) is usually open season for anybody — including the police — to walk through so they can knock on the door of the home. The law assumes that homeowners grant what is known as a general license (or permission) for anybody to approach the front door. It is up to the homeowner whether to answer the door or not, and the police can usually not force their way into the home without a warrant.
The homeowner can revoke the general license for the public to enter his property at any point. He can do this by telling someone to leave. Or he can do this by otherwise telling people they are not welcome, such as by fencing the yard and posting a “no trespassing” sign. The question that a judge would look at is whether there are sufficient surrounding circumstances to indicate that the homeowner had revoked the general license.
If the person enters or remains on the property when the homeowner has made clear that he wants the person to leave, this is a trespass.
Do these same rules apply to the police?
This question has been addressed in Arizona, and the Arizona Court of Appeals in State v. Lohse found that if a homeowner encloses his front yard with a fence and posts a “no trespassing” sign, then even the police are not allowed on the property without a warrant. Notably, the Court held that just having a no trespassing sign or a fence by themselves is not enough to revoke the general license to enter the curtilage. But combined, a closed fence and a sign make entering the front yard a trespass.
Keep in mind that the question the court asks itself in cases such as these is, “Did the homeowner give sufficient notice that he had revoked the general license to enter the curtilage.” In Lohse, the Court assumed that the gate was closed. But if the gate was open, even with the no trespassing sign, approaching the front door might be allowed.
Every situation is different, and small changes can make a big difference in the outcome of a criminal case. An experienced criminal defense attorney is a defendant’s best chance to protect his rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. If you have been charged with or investigated for a crime, call Salwin Law Group today for a free consultation.