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I was speaking with my friend, who sounded real nervous, saying she thinks her roommate might be stealing from work. It's been going on for a few weeks and she can't tell for sure, because her roommate is apparently sort of a mysterious person and my friend goes to school all day and barely sees this roommate anyways so is not really sure, but feels like there are enough hints of things she seen the roommate carry in and that it might be the case. That maybe her roommate is selling stuff she stole from work, she doesn't know. My friend has been afraid of asking the roommate directly if she's stealing.

Long story short, given that my friend is on anxiety medication and I felt real bad for her cause she sounded real anxious, I said just protect yourself, it's nothing to do with you, and don't think about it, and she said what if it IS true and cops come and go through her stuff and turn her room upside down and interrogate her (she has a trauma of when her dad went to prison when she was younger, and she and her family used to live in Russia). I said it's not gonna happen, unless she has anything of the roommate in her room and she said none.

But after the call now I'm starting to wonder because I don't know the laws and have never dealt with cops myself, don't know their process. She lives in Seattle btw. So can anybody tell me what the procedure would be, like if someone is suspected of theft, like can they just break into a place and turn the whole apartment upside down, interrogate everyone, etc, if several people live there, or is it just the one person they suspect?

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This situation actually comes up in practice fairly often.

The liability for your friend is that if the police raid the apartment and find stolen goods, then your friend can be charged with possession of stolen property. The usual procedure for the police is to arrest and charge everybody and sort it out later who actually gets prosecuted for real. By arresting everybody, it is a lot easier for them to coerce people into talking.

In most cases a prosecutor will not press charges against a roommate because they have to prove in court that the roommate had knowledge that the goods were present in the apartment. If, for some reason, they have evidence of this, then they could very well prosecute your friend. For example, if your friend were stupid enough to answer questions from the police and tell them that she "suspected" that her roommate was stashing stolen goods there, then that would be enough to get her prosecuted. NEVER TALK TO THE POLICE.

The best course of action here is to move out of the apartment immediately.


To answer your specific question: CAN THE POLICE SEARCH A ROOMMATE'S ROOM?

The answer: of course. The search warrant will enable the police to search every room in the apartment and any accessory area to which the leasors of the apartment have rights, such as basements, attics and sheds.

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    This is manifestly wrong. The warrant will by no means automatically authorize this and, in fact, it would be hard to obtain a warrant so vast as described above. – A.fm. Jan 24 '18 at 16:49
  • Under what law is admitting suspicion of a roommate enough to get someone prosecuted? Heck, even if she outright knew, what law would apply? – D M Feb 3 '18 at 6:38
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What police can do in practice and what they can do in theory vary. They generally try to follow the theory because that makes arrests stick. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable, and it really depends on the situation and the officer. Most allegations of stealing at work are also dealt with by an employer through firing and frequently do not involve calling law enforcement--a decision the workplace should make with assistance of counsel.

A search incident to a lawful arrest is a valid exception to the warrant requirement. If police arrest a person they are (federally, at least) allowed to search the area for anything that might be a danger to them, like someone hiding in the next room with a shotgun. There are a lot of can-go-wrong scenarios that will be a nightmare for a person with anxiety, but mostly the police are focused on the thing they are called about. They are not there to go looking for trouble--they have a hard job and are trying to be responsible about it. But their procedures can sometimes be very difficult to live through or can result in harm to innocents or an intrusion on the privacy of innocents because they are so used to dealing with guilty people.

As a practical matter, your friend should do what she can to get out of the situation with the roommate she doesn't trust. If he steals at work, would he steal from her, and how can she trust him to pay his part of the rent? If her friend is arrested, who is paying his rent? When he gets out on bail, is she still comfortable living with him? It sounds like she would be best looking for new roommates.

If she anticipates police interaction over anything she has done or anything someone else might think she has done, she should contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer. She may also need to seek mental help for her condition, although she should ask the lawyer about privilege in that situation. And you need to read up more about helping people with anxiety, because it can consume your life if you let it.

Disclaimer: this is a general analysis and you should consult an experienced attorney and probably after that a psychologist to determine the most helpful course of action, because the situation may require a different response more apparent to a person with more experience or facts. Experts have experience. Use it.

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    I work at a big multinational company in the UK and they have had a contractor go to prison for stealing equipment and selling it on ebay, so it does happen but not very often. – Topher Brink Oct 18 '16 at 14:30
  • Note: OP specifically says "she stole from work." – mkennedy Oct 19 '16 at 2:39
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Yes, police can search your friend's room. They can legally do it pursuant to either a search warrant or based on probable cause.

Police can also (illegally) search your friend's residence just because they feel like it. Police are people, and there are bad people who are police. Your friend should take the same measures to protect herself and her belongings from criminals with badges as she would to protect herself from any other criminals.

Police could also ask your friend questions – i.e., attempt to interrogate her. Your friend should understand that she has the right to not answer questions asked by police, and she should familiarize herself with her rights and recommended practices for interacting with police attempting to conduct a search.

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    I agree with your first and last sentence, but your middle one, not so much. They may be able to search the friends room "just because they feel like it", but it does not mean it is lawful to do. It might also be worth pointing out that the police may try and trick someone into giving permission to search the room - its a good idea to know how to avoid succumbing to these tricks. – davidgo Nov 30 '16 at 7:03
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    @davidgo - Good point. I just qualified the second paragraph. The problem I had in mind when writing that, which is illuminated more here, is that if police on duty conduct an illegal search there is practically no legal recourse for the victim. – feetwet Nov 30 '16 at 13:54
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Nobody can say exactly what happens.

I would assume that everyone in the house would be considered a witness. They might ask your friend "did you ever see your roommate carrying computers, monitors etc. into your apartment"; something like that would be likely. It's highly unlikely that she would be treated as a suspect since she doesn't work where things have been stolen.

If the police comes with a search warrant, I would expect that the search warrant would extend to the roommate's room and all shared areas, like the kitchen, a common living room and so on. It's unlikely that a search warrant would allow searching your friend's room. She might want to move anything that she doesn't want the police to see (like private photo albums) into her own room. She should definitely move anything that she doesn't want the police to see (like drugs, goods that she stole, illegal weapons) into her own room.

And obviously they can search your room without warrant and without your permission; they are not allowed to, but unless you have a locked steel door, they can. That would be a violation of your privacy, and any results of the search couldn't be used as evidence against you , but I think they could be used as evidence against your friend.

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    The last part here is inaccurate. Items found in OP's friend's room without a search warrant would likely be excluded as evidence against the friend unless probable cause existed that the item was there or OP's friend gave the police consent to search the room. – A.fm. Jan 24 '18 at 7:41

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