Five Search Warrant Exceptions in Criminal Cases

Indoor Swimming Pool Drownings: What You Need to KnowIn a series of decisions during the 1960s, the Supreme Court applied the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional protections to the states. So, Tarrant County law enforcement agencies must respect the same rules as the FBI, ATF, DEA, and other federal law enforcement agencies.

Over the next several years, the Supreme Court carved out a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement. These exceptions are important in Tarrant County drug cases. In these situations, officers hardy ever have search warrants and often arrest large numbers of people.


Many times, police suspect that a residence is a drug house but they lack probable cause to get a search warrant. So, they ask the owner for consent to search. If the owner agrees, officers can almost literally tear the dwelling apart in their search for contraband.

Anyone with actual or apparent authority can consent to search. That category includes a permanent roommate whose name is not on the lease. However, an overnight guest probably lacks apparent authority, even if the person had some personal effects in the house or apartment. Likewise, a vehicle passenger is hardly ever the owner, so such a person cannot give consent for a vehicle search.

Exigent Circumstances

This exception comes up a lot in property searches as well. If police suspect that someone might be in trouble, they can enter a building without a search warrant to perform a safety check. While inside, the can seize any contraband they find in plain view.

But the scope is limited. Assume a house party gets a little rowdy and two people get into a fight near the parked cars. If officers arrive in response to a disturbance call, they may not have the authority to perform a safety check inside the house.

Plain View

When officers approach a stopped car, they usually study the car’s interior very intently. That’s probably because of the plain view exception. If they see drugs, weapons, or other illegal objects, they can take them, even if they do not have a warrant.

There is no way to tell if a gun is a real gun or a BB pistol, especially in the dark. But most Tarrant County judges uphold suche seizures. Partial plain view cases, such as a pistol grip protruding from underneath the seat, may be different, however.

Stop and Frisk

If they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, officers can stop people on the street, pat them down for weapons, and seize any contraband they touch.

Such searches usually involve two issues. First, officers must have specific, articulable facts that point to criminal activity. “S/he looked wrong” is not reasonable suspicion. Second, how did the officer know that the person had a baggie of drugs and not a bag of something else?

Search Incident to Arrest

Prior to 1990, officers could “arrest” people for speeding or other minor infractions, search their vehicles, and “un-arrest” them if they did not find anything.

The Supreme Court outlawed such invasive searches. But officers sometimes use search incident to arrest as a bluff in drug cases. They may say something like unless you consent to a search, we will arrest you and search the vehicle or premises anyway. That’s an empty threat, so be ready for it.

Officers do not always need search warrants in drug possession arrests. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth, contact Herreth Law. Convenient payment plans are available.