When is a Warrantless Police Search Allowed in Texas?

Police officers usually require a warrant to search your property. However,  some cases, a warrantless police search may not be unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.

An article on the website of the Texas District & County Attorneys Association points out today’s law on searches and seizures is largely the result of more than 200 years of judicial evolution.

The law has changed. While a police officer’s subjective intent in making a traffic stop does not matter today, it was relevant a quarter of a century ago.

Warrants are favored for a number of reasons, namely:

  • The officer or the prosecutor who drafts the warrant is able to highlight the facts and draft a statement of probable cause with care.
  • A magistrate reviews the information from the prosecutor or the police officer before deciding to issue the warrant.
  • If a case goes to the court with a warrant, there is a clear presumption that the search and seizure was lawful.

The Supreme Court has, however, ruled that police may conduct a warrantless search and still be in compliance with the Fourth Amendment if it is reasonable under the circumstances. The exceptions made to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a warrant reflect the Supreme Court’s reluctance to impede the job of law enforcement officials unnecessarily.

When is a Warrantless Police Search Justified?

When a Warrantless Police Search is Legitimate

In some cases, it’s not practical or desirable to force an officer to stop what he’s doing to get a warrant, the Supreme Court ruled.

When a Warrantless Police Search May be Reasonable

There are a series of scenarios in which a warrantless search may be deemed reasonable. They include:

A Search for Weapons.

If a police officer reasonably believes criminal activity is going on in a public place, he is allowed to stop a suspect thought to be involved in criminality and to conduct a limited search of the suspect’s outer clothing for weapons that could be used against the officer. A police officer may also ask for identification. They suspect is under no obligation to produce it.

A Felony Arrest in a Public Place

A warrantless search may take place during a felony arrest in a public place, even if the arresting officer has sufficient time to obtain a warrant. Felony arrests in places not open to the public typically do require a warrant, unless a police officer is involved in the “hot pursuit” of a fleeing felon. If a misdemeanor is committed in the presence of an officer, the Fourth Amendment also allows a warrantless arrest.

Exigent Circumstances

Exigent circumstances may justify warrantless searches, seizures, and arrests. To evaluate whether exigent circumstances justified the conduct of an officer, a court must review all of the circumstances. The courts consider the seriousness of the underlying offense and whether a suspect was seeking to escape the scene. Screams, shots or a fire in a building have met the test of exigent circumstances under the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Protection of Life

In the case of Warden v. Hayden, the Supreme Court justices held the entry into a residence by police officers chasing an armed robber was justified. Any delay to secure a warrant would endanger the lives of others. The information must be fairly specific and direct in these cases. Merely investigating a potential danger is unlikely to meet the protection of life exception.

Community caretaking

Community caretaking is a variant on the exigent circumstances doctrine. It allows a peace officer to stop someone when the officer reasonably believes that person needs the officer’s assistance.

This exception is relevant when officers investigate vehicle collisions. A police officer does not need a basis to believe the suspect is taking part in or about to engage in any criminal activity under the community caretaking stop doctrine.

The issue of police stops and warrants is a complicated one. Please call our experienced Texas criminal defense team for more help and assistance. Call (512) 474-4445.

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