In March 2016, police were notified of a loud argument at an apartment in Seattle, Washington. By the time police arrived at Solomon McLemore’s apartment, the argument had subsided, but police say they heard the sound of glass shattering inside. For 15 minutes, the police engaged in an argument with McLemore about whether he should open the door.
“Open the fucking door,” demanded one officer. McLemore refused, explicitly citing his Fourth Amendment rights, which guarantee Americans freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Ultimately, the officers broke down his door. Inside, they found no evidence that anyone had been hurt.
Nevertheless, McLemore was charged and convicted of obstructing law enforcement for refusing to open his door upon request by law enforcement. He was sentenced to 20 days of house arrest. But McLemore believes that Americans shouldn’t be required to actively assist law enforcement with warrantless searches like this one. He has appealed his conviction to the Washington Supreme Court, which is now considering the case.
Did the police have the right to enter the apartment?
Generally, police are allowed to enter private homes — even forcefully — if they reasonably believe that someone inside needs immediate help. No warrant is required. McLemore’s attorneys aren’t contesting the officers’ right to enter his apartment. They even accept that McLemore might have been guilty of obstruction if he had fought or tried to impede the officers from entering.
They simply believe that Americans have no duty to open the door when police propose to search the premises. Refusal to actively assist police should not result in criminal prosecution.
What is obstruction of officers?
Obstruction can be hard to define, but it generally means engaging in conduct, legal or illegal, that impedes a police officer. Unfortunately, whether a particular person is guilty of obstruction depends in large part upon the officer’s opinion, argues the ACLU of Washington. Some critics call the charge “contempt of cop.”
Unfortunately, the Washington Court of Appeals has held in another case that “an individual’s willful refusal to obey a lawful police order may constitute obstruction if the refusal hinders, delays or obstructs the officer.” McLemore may face an uphill battle in that state.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2011’s Kentucky v. King that, when police come knocking, “the occupant has no obligation to open the door to speak.”
These days, police seem to expect private individuals to obey an ever-growing variety of so-called “lawful police orders.” Unfortunately, most Americans are not receiving instruction on what police orders must be obeyed. Our Constitution is meant to protect our privacy, not obligate us to submit to police searches and seizures that may be unlawful.