Is It Proper to Charge a Person with RDO for Refusing to Open the Door for a Search Warrant?

I was at the magistrates’ fall conference last week when a magistrate asked me whether an occupant of a dwelling could properly be charged with resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer (“RDO”) for declining to unlock and open the door for an officer executing a search warrant. At first I thought so, but later became less sure. So I decided to look into it and write about it here.

RDO is defined in G.S. 14-223(a), which provides that “any person [who] shall willfully and unlawfully resist, delay or obstruct a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge an official duty . . . is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.” For purposes of this post, I’m assuming that it is clear to the occupant that the officer is in fact an officer. I’m also assuming that the officer clearly states that he or she has a search warrant and demands entry, and that the occupant is able to hear the officer. And I’m assuming that the occupant in question is a resident of the premises to be searched or otherwise has the authority to unlock and open the door.

With those parameters in mind, I don’t think there’s a North Carolina appellate case directly on point. In fact, the only case that I found interpreting the RDO statute in the context of search warrants is State v. Richardson, 202 N.C. App. 570 (2010). In that case, the defendant was inside an apartment when officers arrived to execute a search warrant. After the officers knocked and announced, the defendant fled through the back door. He was promptly arrested and charged with RDO, but the court of appeals reversed his conviction, stating that it found “no authority for the State’s presumption that a person whose property is not the subject of a search warrant may not peacefully leave the premises after the police knock and announce if the police have not asked him to stay.” I’ll return to Richardson briefly at the end of this post, but for now suffice it to say that it doesn’t directly address the question at hand, which led to me look at other cases from around the country.

Actively resisting entrance is unlawful. The focus of this post is a person who passively declines to unlock and open the door. But if a person goes beyond that and actively attempts to prevent entry – for example, by pushing on or barricading the door – it seems clear that RDO would apply. See People v. Perry, 2011 WL 3629231 (Mich. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2011) (unpublished) (affirming a conviction for resisting and obstructing a police officer where the defendant “attempted to close the door and prevent the officers from entering the apartment,” including “pushing against the door to prevent the officers’ entry”).

A majority of courts hold that refusing to unlock and open the door constitutes obstruction. As to simply refusing to unlock and open the door in the face of a search warrant, a majority of the cases that I found concluded that doing so amounts to obstruction. See Shaheed v. Kroski, 833 Fed. Appx. 868 (2d Cir. 2020) (unpublished) (affirming a lower court’s ruling that “officers had at least arguable probable cause to believe that plaintiffs had obstructed governmental administration” where plaintiffs “refus[ed] to open the door to their apartment” after officers informed them that a Family Court order, equivalent to a search warrant, authorized officers’ entry); People v. Paige, 911 N.Y.S.2d 176 (App. Div. N.Y. 2010) (troopers went to a suspect’s residence to execute an arrest warrant; a third party answered the door but “would not let the troopers in” and “slammed the door” on them; after the troopers forced entry, the third party was charged with and convicted of obstructing governmental administration; the reviewing court affirmed, stating that “although a different verdict would not have been unreasonable, the jury’s conclusion that defendant intentionally interfered with the performance of an official function is not against the weight of the evidence”); People v. Azbill, 2018 WL 3018844 (Cal. Ct. App. June 18, 2018) (unpublished) (the defendant was properly convicted of resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer because the “defendant’s failure to open the door to his residence when demanded to do so . . . and his flight to the roof, undoubtedly delayed the officers in performing the lawful search of his residence” pursuant to a warrant).

It is worth noting that this is far from an overwhelming array of authority. It is a handful of cases, several unpublished, some with facts beyond a mere refusal to open a door and others with lukewarm language like the statement in Shaheed that there was “at least arguable probable cause” to charge obstruction on the facts presented. However, the idea that citizens are obliged to provide officers with at least minimal cooperation may be bolstered to some extent by the rationale of State v. Friend, 237 N.C. App. 490 (2014). In Friend, the court of appeals affirmed an RDO conviction based on a defendant’s refusal to identify himself during a lawful traffic stop. The defendant in Friend refused to cooperate and to provide identifying information, arguably like a person who refuses to cooperate and to unlock a door. The court determined that in doing so, the defendant in Friend delayed and obstructed the officer’s ability to issue a traffic citation.

Dissenting view: there is no obligation to facilitate officers’ execution of a search warrant. As limited as the authority above may be, the authority I could locate on the other side of this issue is even slimmer. The most pertinent case was Cleveland v. Corrai, 591 N.E.2d 1325 (Ohio Ct. App. 1990). In that case, employees of an adult video store did not cooperate with officers executing a search warrant, including by initially refusing to open the cash register and by claiming not to have keys to a particular cabinet. The employees were charged with violating a city code that prohibits citizens from impeding public officials, but the charges were properly dismissed as the reviewing court found no obligation to “cooperate and aid in the execution of [a] search warrant.”

A person who wanted to make a similar argument in North Carolina might note that G.S. 15A-251 allows an officer executing a search warrant to force entry if he or she believes that “admittance is being denied or unreasonably delayed.” In other words, there is already a specific statutory solution to the problem of an uncooperative occupant, arguably rendering it unnecessary to resort to the more general charge of RDO.

Conclusion. Obviously there is a split of authority on this issue. If I were advising officers, I would err on the side of caution and lean towards the reasoning in Corrai that people are not obligated to assist officers in executing a search warrant. If an occupant chooses to stand by and let his or her door be broken in, perhaps he or she is entitled to do so. In any event, on close questions like this one, details matter. An occupant who refuses to unlock an already-locked door may be viewed differently than one who locks the door as he or she sees officers approach. And returning for a moment to Richardson, the court’s reference to the fact that the officers had not asked the defendant in that case to remain in the apartment made me think that the specific wording used by the officers in knocking and announcing might be significant. An RDO charge seems more likely to stick if officers say “police, search warrant, open the door” instead of simply “police, search warrant,” which doesn’t expressly direct anyone to do anything.

As always, I welcome readers’ thoughts and experiences, especially if they differ from my own.