Covid-19: Assemblies on Private Property

This article was sparked by an issue someone reported on NextDoor. Here’s the gist:

Last night, lots of people heard a very loud, large, social backyard birthday party that went for around 6 hours. I’m sure we all want to be partying during this time but it made people around the neighborhood feel disrespected and unsafe!

One or more neighbors contacted the Sheriff’s Department and a unit was dispatched to the scene but no action was taken by the deputies. I was curious about this so I discussed it with Mark Duri, San Carlos’ police chief. Here’s what I learned1.

Private property rights, while not absolute2 are pretty fundamental and entitled to a significant degree of respect under the law. For example, the authorities would not be able to break up a party of unrelated individuals taking place inside someone’s home. If the party was violating our noise ordinances they could address that issue3. But they couldn’t simply enter the home and disperse the crowd.

Even today under the emergency health order they would not have grounds to walk into the home and start questioning people as to whether or not they were related to each other. Because they’d be intruding on private property without probable cause.

The rules of engagement are similar for a party taking place in a backyard. Noise, if it’s in violation of our ordinances, can be dealt with. But questioning people and potentially dispersing the crowd, no.

It’s a little different if the party is taking place in the front yard or in a public area (e.g., the street, a park). Being in plain sight means officers could go beyond dealing with noise issues and question people’s relationships and warn them to disperse if they are not all living together4. Failure to comply can lead to citation and possibly arrest.

None of this is meant to justify having a party of unrelated individuals5 in the midst of a pandemic. Having such a party shows questionable if not poor judgment, and perhaps a degree of self-centeredness inconsistent with being a member of a community like San Carlos. It might even be worth a neighbor-to-neighbor conversation or email about the inappropriateness of what happened, to discourage repetition.

It’s worth remembering the lack of action by authorities, however frustrating it might seem, demonstrates something important: respect for individual rights and the law. We should all take comfort from that…even while wishing6 for better choices by some of our neighbors.


  1. Keep in mind that I am neither a lawyer nor a judge. But I have been working with lawyers, judges and police for many years. 

  2. No right is. 

  3. Probably by admonishing the party-goers to tone it down, and warning them that they could be cited if they don’t. 

  4. They can, under the current emergency order, even question groups who are otherwise peacefully occupied. 

  5. who don’t live together 

  6. and perhaps lobbying 

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