How to Keep the Police off Your Land

A police car follows you down your driveway. An officer peers through your home’s windows. Sheriffs hike across your property looking for evidence of a crime. It is under your control whether these and similar intrusions are allowed.

Keeping the police out of your house is easy. Keeping them off your property is more difficult. Your home is clearly protected. Unless you invite the police in or an exception to the requirement for a search warrant exits, the police can’t come in without a warrant. On the other hand, police can enter private property and walk up to a house unless the homeowner takes steps to make clear his intent is to exclude the public.

How do you exclude the police from your private property? By making clear the general public is excluded. Courts in Oregon will look to whether you erected fences and posted signs prohibiting the general public from entry.

Think of a Girl Scout selling cookies, or a postman delivering a package. If the Girl Scout would enter to sell cookies, or a postman would feel comfortable coming to your door to deliver a package, the police are probably allowed to go there to investigate a crime. Once there, they can take police action if they observe evidence of a crime.

A simple “No Trespassing” sign is helpful, but not a shield. No trespassing signs are commonly placed where they have little expected effect. In Oregon, a reasonable person must have notice that entry onto the property is prohibited.

For example, when there is a fence around property and there are clearly displayed ‘no trespassing’ signs, police should stay off the property, even when the gate across the driveway is open.

Here is the rule set out by the Oregon Supreme Court:

[I]t is not sufficient that the property in question is privately owned, or that it is shielded from view by vegetation or topographical barriers, because those features do not necessarily indicate the owner’s intention that the property be kept private. A person who wishes to preserve a constitutionally protected privacy interest in land outside the curtilage must manifest an intention to exclude the public by erecting barriers to entry, such as fences, or by posting signs. This rule will not unduly hamper law enforcement officers in their attempts to curtail the manufacture of and trafficking in illegal drugs, because it does not require investigating officers to draw any deduction other than that required of the general public: if land is fenced, posted or otherwise closed off, one does not enter it without permission or, in the officers’ situation, permission or a warrant.

Oregon has vast expanses of private land. Public laws encourage private landowners to allow access to their land. Unless steps are taken to make clear the public is not welcome on a portion of property, the police are allowed to go there. If you want to exclude police make it clear they are not welcome.

As always, this is not legal advice. It is a statement of the author’s interpretation of the law on the day it was published. Laws change.