The last thing you expected when you woke up this morning was to find the police pounding on your door. Now there’s a detective or an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with a set of armed, uniformed officers standing nearby. They ask to “look around” your place as part of their investigation into some kind of crime. You aren’t even sure what they’re looking for — but you don’t think you have anything to hide.

What’s your legal obligation in this situation?

You have absolutely none. Unless that detective can show you a warrant, the odds are good that they lack the authority to force you to open your door — although there are a few exceptions to that rule.

The police can intrude on a private residence without a warrant if there’s probable cause to believe that a crime is happening inside while they’re there. An easy example would be them  hearing screams for help coming from a back room while they’re talking with you. But “probable cause” doesn’t have to be that obvious. It could also be something like the cops seeing some marijuana through the screen door as they approached while you were rolling a joint. That’s why many advocates recommend that you keep your door closed until you find out if the police actually have a warrant.

Naturally, the police don’t always get warrants when they decide to knock on someone’s door. That requires showing a judge enough legal reasons to approve one — and that may not be easy.

You can protect yourself against unwanted police intrusions — and unnecessary charges — by simply knowing your rights and verbally denying permission for a search. If that fails, however, take the next important step: Get an experienced defense attorney on your side.