The right to privacy runs deep in the Constitution. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
In Tarrant County criminal court, “unreasonable” is not a subjective term. In fact, unless officers had a warrant based on probable cause or the search fit into a narrow search warrant exception, it was unreasonable.
Under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, any evidence seized after an unreasonable search is not admissible in court. As a result, judges often throw these cases out of court due to a lack of evidence.
These search warrant exceptions often come up in drug possession and other cases. Generally, officers do not bother to obtain warrants in these situations.
If officers are lawfully in a certain place, they may seize any weapons or contraband they see in plain view. Significantly, officers may not use optical aids, like binoculars or drone cameras, to bring items into plain view. Officers often cite the plain view doctrine when they seize contraband after a weapons pat-down. More on that below.
This search warrant exception may be the most common one. Owners, or people with apparent ownership authority, may give consent to search rooms, dwellings, vehicles, or other property. An “apparent owner” is someone like a roommate whose name is not on the lease. Consent must not only be authoritative. It must be affirmative and voluntary. Opening a door is not consent to search. At best, that’s assent. Additionally, if officers threaten to obtain a search warrant if the owner withholds consent, the consent is not really voluntary.
The emergency circumstances exception often comes up in house party disturbance calls. When they respond to such calls, officers may sweep through the dwelling and make sure everyone is okay. While they are inside, they may seize any drugs or other contraband they see in plain view. These safety checks are very limited. Officers may only make a quick run-through. They definitely may not open any locked containers.
Before they pat down suspects for weapons, officers must have reasonable suspicion. That’s basically an evidence-based hunch that something is amiss. During these pat-downs, they may seize any contraband they find. However, it is difficult to tell the difference between a real pistol and a BB pistol, a baggie of drugs and a baggie of detergent, and so on.
Search Incident to Arrest
Prior to 2009’s Arizona v. Gant, the search incident to arrest exception was one of the most widely used ones in Tarrant County. Before 2009, officers could “arrest” people for speeding and other infractions, then literally tear their vehicles apart. But Gant limited these searches to weapons pat-downs. So, this exception does not come up much anymore.
Warrantless searches often do not hold up in court. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth, contact Herreth Law. We routinely handle matters in Tarrant County and nearby jurisdictions.