Search and Seizure in Texas
In the course of investigations, law enforcement officers may sometimes confiscate a person’s property as evidence. Texas state law and the U.S. Constitution both allow this activity to take place but only under certain circumstances.
In some cases, a police officer might overstep the law during a search. If this happens, a suspect’s rights may be violated. Knowing exactly what the police can and can’t do when it comes to search and seizure is essential for protecting your rights.
What Can The Police Search and Seize?
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that all U.S. citizens should be safe from all “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The language used in this amendment is very broad, which has created a great deal of debate over the years. Of course, what a police officer believes is “unreasonable” might be very different from what a suspect in a criminal investigation thinks of the same issue.
In general, a police officer needs a warrant to search the property of a suspect. A warrant is a document that must be signed by a judge to allow law enforcement officers to invade the privacy of a person by conducting a search of their body and their property.
A warrant is a vital piece of an investigation. If a search is conducted without one, any evidence recovered may not be admissible in court.
For example, Officer Lopez believes that drug deals are occurring in a house that he has been observing for two weeks. He goes to a judge to show the evidence he has gathered and the judge issues a warrant. The SWAT team enters the house and arrests everyone inside. Any drugs or weapons that are found are covered by the warrant so they can be used as evidence in a prosecution.
However, if Officer Lopez does not get a warrant, anything he finds in the house may not be admissible, even if he finds ten pounds of cocaine in the basement.
In general, a warrant is written out against a person or a specific address. The warrant covers that person specifically and anything that is found in the property at that address. There are some exceptions to the necessity of warrants, however.
Exceptions to Warrant Searches
In general, a warrant is required to search a person or property. However, lawmakers realize that police officers do not always have time to stop and file a warrant in the middle of their duties. As a result, the law includes some provisions which allow police officers to conduct searches without first obtaining a warrant.
For example, a warrant may not be required for a search if:
- A police officer is pursuing a suspect who then enters private property
- A police officer actually witnesses a suspect commit a crime and then conceal evidence
- A police officer is conducting an arrest and needs to check a suspect for weapons or contraband
For example, if Officer Martin witnesses a person fire a pistol at another civilian and then flee into a house, the officer does not have to stop and call a judge to get a warrant. If a person is in the act of committing a serious crime, the officer can pursue them into private property to protect the safety of others.
Body Searches vs. Vehicle and Home Searches
There is a very large distinction between searches of a person and a search of their vehicle or their home. In general, a search of a home has a greater legal standard of probable cause when compared to body searches or vehicle searches.
For example, if an officer places a person under arrest and has probable cause to believe that person has committed a crime or is concealing weapons or evidence, the officer can conduct a legal search without a warrant. The officer may pat the person down and ask them to empty their pockets. The officer may also conduct a vehicle search of a person that has been placed under arrest.
For example, if Officer Smith pulls over a car for erratic driving and then notices a strong smell of marijuana coming from the car, he may have probable cause to temporarily detain or arrest the driver. He may then conduct a legal search of their car and their clothing to check for drugs.
If an officer can see illegal contraband in plain sight through the window of a house, he may have the right to conduct a search without a warrant. In most cases, though, a warrant is required for searches of private residence.
Know Your Rights
The Fourth Amendment is one of the most powerful constitutional protections that citizens have. If you believe that your rights have been violated, you may consult with an attorney to discuss legal options.
Have your rights as a citizen been violated? Obtaining legal counsel is essential and attorney Matthew D. Sharp can help. Contact his office today at 713-868-6100.