Welcome back. It’s been pretty quiet over the last few weeks without you. The streets of I.V. were as chilly and quiet as a reception for Howard Stern at a NOW convention. But now you’re all back, and I.V. will be in full swing again. Let the parties and, unfortunately, the occasional loud music tickets, begin…

Can the cops come onto my property anytime they want?

This has to be the most frequently asked question by anyone who gets a noise ticket in I.V. It’s not an easy question with a simple answer. The short answer is, ” it depends.” OK, so besides the fact that that answer stinks, I have another thousand words to fill. Rather than wasting them on the debate between who’s the cooler captain – Kirk or Picard – let me try to explain some of the legalese regarding where the cops can and cannot go.

What it all boils down to is a person’s 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion – that is, that you have a right to a certain level of privacy. The catch is that the level of privacy varies depending on where you are. For example, the reasonable level of privacy in the front yard is going to be much lower than, say, in your bathroom. IF you want to walk around naked in your house, you’re OK. Prune the bushes while naked in the front yard, and now you’re that weird neighbor who scares small children.

So why isn’t your front yard private? If your home, like 99 percent of all homes, has a walkway that leads up to the front door and has a doorbell, you’ve then created an atmosphere that invites the public to your front door, and can therefore have a lesser expectation of privacy. If, on the other hand, you have around your front yard a 12-foot wall with barbed wire, a locked gate, little Chihuahuas posted every five feet and signs saying “No Trespassing,” then it’s pretty clear that you’re not welcoming the public onto your property. These barriers and deterrents create a greater expectation of privacy. Thus, barring a warrant, an invite by a resident or exigent circumstances, the police can’t just walk into your enclosed yard.

This also applies to backyards. If you have an enclosed backyard with gates and signs, you will have a certain expected level of privacy. Now, before you get really excited and jump up and down yelling, “A-Ha!”, there’s a catch. Many residences in Isla Vista have two or more apartments. A backyard shared by two or more apartments will not have an expectation of privacy because you share it with someone else.

OK, so my yard is private. What’s the “exigent circumstances” that the police used to enter? The legal term refers to an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence or property (Case law: Ramey (1976) 16 Cal.3d 263, 276).

What that means is that, in order for an officer to enter a private secured area, like that fenced yard or your living room, he has to show there is an immediate need for someone’s safety (i.e. Freddy Krueger is about to do the Ronco Slice-O-Matic on you, or the suspect of a crime would get away or evidence inside will be destroyed). If you open your door for the police and they see your friends with the marijuana pipe at the table, it is reasonable to believe that by the time the cops came back with a warrant, the pipe, and person holding it, would then become a “long-gone bong.” Because of this, we can then legally enter the apartment to seize it and deal with the possible suspect holding it to prevent it from disappearing.

I hope I was able to shed some light on this question. I realize that every situation is different, and that it’s difficult to apply a general answer to your specific situation. If you don’t think the cops had a right to be where they were, ask me about it. You may still disagree — and that’s okay — but I hope to be able to give you some insight on what we do and why. You’ll never know until you Question Authority.

So take care and be safe until next time.

Ticked off by a ticket? Party pooped by the Patrol? If you’ve got questions, don’t let them eat away at you. Ask questions. Call or e-mail me anytime. Mark.Signa@police.ucsb.edu or the Crime Prevention Office at 893-4063.