Can your chain of command show up at your private, off-post residence, and take a look inside?
On its face, one immediate response would be “no,” or, perhaps, “try attempting that with my spouse.” But this question comes up all the time, especially on social media — like this thread, on Reddit’s r/Army forum, or this one, for the corresponding Marine Corps message board — presumably because the leadership of various units wants to see how their soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, or guardians actually live. Like this Marine Corps Sgt. Maj.
It seems like an enduring topic, perhaps because it brings up the question of one’s chain of command asking to do something or ordering you to do something —and depending on one’s rank, does it really make a difference if your superior just says something like, “I’m coming around to check out where you live”?
The answer is, of course, no.
“On base you are subject to command authority for those dwellings – there are requirements for that but it is authorized, but it must be based on probable cause,” said Joe Galli, a lawyer with Daniel Conway & Associates, focusing on military law. “Off post, no commander has authority to authorize a search, there would have to be a search warrant authorized by civilian law enforcement. But it is common to ask to do so.”
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The rationale starts all the way at the top, with the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment grants “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In other words, at least outside of the barracks, where you live is where you live, and without probable cause or a legal warrant, there’s no reason you have to let your chain of command inside your house. If the chain of command has reason to believe that there’s something illegal going on at your residence, that also has to be coordinated through local law enforcement.
As Army Regulation 190-24 says, which also stipulates regulations for other branches, the military’s law enforcement enforcement effectively ends at the front gate of the installation, unless working with civilian law enforcement. Commanders can, of course, declare certain establishments off-limits to military personnel. That could, in theory, apply to certain residences, but enforcing that is entirely incumbent on the chain of command.
When it comes to your private residence, though, having your chain of command take a look around is entirely voluntary. When it comes to on-post housing, as the 10th Mountain Division Inspector General’s Office published in 2011, “Your chain of command may authorize in advance to visit your on-post quarters; however the commander must have your voluntary permission. Commanders cannot lawfully order Soldiers to let them into on-post quarters.”
Likewise, from this dispatch from Fort Hood, Texas in 2011: “Commanders do not have the authority to conduct inspections or authorize searches in privatized housing or in a Soldier’s off-post quarters. Therefore, any searches off of the installation must be conducted in conjunction with a valid search warrant, and commanders should talk with their supporting SJA.”
And, if you do invite the chain of command into your home, as this 2013 policy letter from Fort Irwin, California states, “leaders will promptly leave the premises if asked to do so, and no adverse action will be taken or threatened against a soldier or family member for refusing to permit a leader to enter or remain in the quarters.”
Oftentimes when this question is asked on social media, some people will say that there is nothing wrong with checking in on where a soldier is living.
“You can and should routinely visit the homes (which includes barracks as well as on/off post housing) of your Soldiers. It is your responsibility to ensure the Soldier and their dependents are living in a healthy environment – this is not a choice,” reads one comment on a RallyPoint thread on the topic.
And, yes, you can allow this to happen if you want. But it’s not a requirement.
“The reason these protections exist is because how compelled a member of the military may feel if a member of the command says we want to take a look around, they may be afraid to refuse the command,” said Galli. “Oftentimes we confuse that we have the right to privacy, with, well if there’s nothing to hide what’s the concern?”
So, if this question is ever posed to you, you’re free to let the chain of command in, but you’re under no obligation to do so, even if it’s presented as an order.
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