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My friend is being harassed by our local pd. They come to her house excessively and have even told her if she has house guests they will arrest her. Can they really do that?

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  • How old is she? And you? And what state/city is this in? And who calls the police, or do they show up with no incentive? – BlueDogRanch Oct 18 '18 at 3:10
  • I'm 43, she is 28. We live in Charleston, WV. Its Charleston city pd I am speaking of and they come unannounced and uninvited. – Tara Michelle Oct 18 '18 at 7:23
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    That sounds extremely strange. They need a reason to arrest her - did they tell her on what grounds they would arrest her? – sleske Oct 18 '18 at 7:40
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    There is no context here. Maybe your house guests are very noisy and the police were responding to a complaint. If that is the case you need to add that information. – Brandin Oct 18 '18 at 8:38
  • I share the concern of @Brandin that important facts are omitted from this account. – ohwilleke Oct 18 '18 at 17:09
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They come to her house excessively and have even told her if she has house guests they will arrest her. Can they really do that?

Absent special circumstances such as those discussed above, however, having house guests is not a crime, and some laws that purport to prohibit this are unconstitutional.

But, there are a variety of proper and improper reasons that this could be happening, as well as some that are in a legal gray area.

Clearly, the police are doing this for some reason, proper or improper, because it is a sustained pattern of conduct that seems to be singling out one person. But, without more of a factual context it is hard to tell what that reason is so that it is possible to determine whether or not their threat has a legal basis.

Like most legal questions, the answer cannot be provided in a vacuum and a full factual context is necessary to know if the police conduct is illegal or not.

Valid Reasons

Part of A Pattern Of Evidence Showing A Suspected Vice Offense

One possible subtext is that the police believe that the premises is a de facto house of prostitution, or that she is dealing drugs out of the house, even though they don't yet have the evidence to arrest her on those suspicions.

The police could be implying in their threat to arrest her that the presence of "house guests" would give them probable cause to arrest her on suspicion of a vice offense such as prostitution or drug dealing.

Municipal Ordinance Violations

Many valid reasons involve municipal ordinances, almost all of which can be punished by arrest and incarceration just like a misdemeanor criminal offense, even when the ordinance does not describe conduct that would usually be considered to be criminal in nature.

For example, municipal codes usually authorize law enforcement to arrest someone for a zoning violation, even though it would be very unusual to arrest someone for violating a zoning law.

There are often municipal ordinances which limit how many house guests you can have at any one time in a single family house or apartment, such as fire codes and laws designed to prevent loitering and gang activity, and there are often rules that prohibit certain kinds of activities like loud and disorderly parties (especially where alcohol is served or available). But, these ordinances almost never prohibit all house guests.

The police could think that she is operating a short term leasing operation (i.e. Air B-n-B) or hotel, in a place where this use of the property is banned by municipal ordinance, and it appears that her "house guests" fit this description.

Many municipal ordinances impose curfews on minors, and someone could be arrested for having a party at which minor house guests are present after curfew under some of those municipal ordinances.

Some municipal ordinances (or even sometimes state laws), which are not always constitutional or valid under federal housing laws, prohibit unrelated people from cohabiting, either because the cohabitation amounts to de facto polygamy, or because zoning laws prohibit more than a certain number of unrelated people from living at a residence.

Valid Reasons Particular To Certain Individuals

If someone is on probation or parole or house arrest or out on bail pending criminal charges, the conditions of that criminal sentence or bail condition could also limit the ability of someone to have house guests.

For example, if someone had previously been convicted of disorderly conduct and noise violations and contributing to the delinquency of minors, with a wild party, a probation condition for that person might prohibit them from having house guests during the duration of the probation sentence.

Similarly, many probation, parole and bail conditions, prohibit the person released in the community from associating with known felons or gang members.

Civil or criminal protection orders can also prohibit particular people (e.g. ex-spouses) from being at a particular location.

Many states impose restrictions on where sex offenders can reside that could be implicated in this case.

A few states also have a criminal sanction of "exile" on the books that prohibits certain people from being in certain jurisdictions following their conviction.

Gray Area Reasons

It is also entirely possible that the police are asserting rights to do things that they don't actually have the right to do. And, in most jurisdictions in the U.S., it is not categorically unconstitutional for law enforcement officers to lie to members of the public about their authority or other matters, in order to achieve a law enforcement purpose, even if they would be violating the law if they followed through on their lies about what they are permitted to do.

Improper Reasons

There could also be clearly improper reasons for this conduct. For example:

  • perhaps a police officer wants men to say away from his ex-spouse or daughter, even though he has no right to do so and his colleagues are backing him up, or

  • perhaps the police think that her house guests are disreputable and are taking matters into their own hands without legal authority to keep "bad people" out of territory in their "beat", or

  • perhaps they suspect but can't prove that she deals drugs or conducts some other sort of illegal activity at her residence, or

  • perhaps she is one of the few black residents of the neighborhood (or her house guests are black) and the police want to harass her to cause her to leave the neighborhood, and they don't think that she will be able to punish them for their misconduct effectively though legal channels before getting fed up and moving away. For example, if they make an arrest and can articulate some kind of alleged probable cause even if it doesn't hold up in court, they may be able to dramatically inconvenience this women with impunity, particularly if the local trial court judges that would consider the arrest decide to side with the police even when misconduct would be clear to a neutral observer.

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The police legally cannot arrest a person for having guests. They can come to the house to talk to the owner, or others who are there. They can arrest a person if they have probable cause that a crime was committed or is being committed, such as murder or disturbing the peace.

Suppose that owner A habitually invites over guests who disturb the peace. Someone could file a complaint requesting that A be enjoined from having more that 3 guests, or something like that, aimed at stopping the noise that accompanies these visits. The court might then issue a temporary restraining order or a permanent injunction for some cause. Were there such an injunction, violating it is a crime, and A could be arrested. The police cannot, however, "take the law into their hands" and issue an injunction – that comes from a court.

Supposing that there is no such court order, and supposing that the police simply have it in for A, A can try to sue the city for harassment, including a federal civil rights lawsuit. Whether or not A will succeed depends on what the actual facts are.

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