The police, an open door, and probable cause

Seven things Maggie Koerth-Baker and Her Husband Learned at 4 am on a Tuesday

1) After doing some home renovation work late into the evening, my husband had inadvertently left both our garage door and our back door open when he came to bed.

2) There have been a string of burglaries in our neighborhood, often involving somebody kicking in the back door of a house.

3) If the cops are patrolling your neighborhood alleys looking for burglars and they see your garage door and back door open, they might interpret that as a sign that there could be a robbery in progress at your residence. Legal precedent calls this “totality of circumstances”. Just leaving your back door open might not be suspicious, especially if you lock the screen door and, thus, imply that you meant to do that. But combine an open back door with the open garage, an unlocked screen door, the time of night, and the string of burglaries, and cops start to decide that they can’t just shrug their shoulders and walk away. This will end up being important.

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4) Turns out, when there is a window unit and a fan on in our bedroom, we can’t hear people yelling something like, for instance, “Police!”, through our back screen door. Or, at any rate, I might hear it, but will not register properly what is being said.

4a) My neighbor and his roommate were not out yelling for their dog at 4:00 in the morning. Also, there are two Minneapolis police officers whose voices sound strikingly like those of my neighbor and his roommate. Small world.

5) If you don’t answer the door at 4:00 in the morning and the cops have a totality of circumstances that lead them to believe a robbery may be in progress, they then have probable cause to enter your house.

6) Upon waking up to strangers and flashlights in the hallway six feet from our bed, my husband’s response is to charge at said intruders while screaming. (It is also worth noting that he is not a pajama kind of guy.) He will later explain his train of thought as, “Strangers! Pregnant wife! Attack!”

7) Confirming our previous suspicions, my husband and I are now fairly confident that we benefit from the sort of class and race biases that prevent a man from being shot or tased when he runs screaming, naked, at a cop in the dark at 4:00 in the morning. It probably also doesn’t hurt that there seems to be a correlation between the time it takes to trip and fall into the wall and the time it takes to register that the intruder in your hallway is dressed like a cop and you maybe shouldn’t hit him. The officers who came into our house were nothing but polite and professional. But later that night, I will find myself lying awake for at least an hour, thinking about the context and the many, many ways this situation could have gone poorly. Instead, I think, thanks to a strange combination of privilege and circumstance, training and luck, this is something that I get to laugh about.

In conclusion: I think we are pretty good to go on the whole “remember to shut the door at night” thing.

Special thanks to Minneapolis Police Department Sgt. William Powell for answering my questions about probable cause and the likelihood of being prosecuted for assaulting an officer. Photo: Chris Barrie.

Published 6:55 am Thu, Aug 29, 2013

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.

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  1. milliefink

    I too wanted to comment on the writing itself (aside from expressing thanks for the story itself). Maggie is one excellent writer.

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