Understanding Search and Seizure Laws in Texas
The Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments of the Constitution, confers several rights and protections for individuals facing criminal charges. One such protection is for a speedy trial, another to be tried by a jury of one’s peers, and another the right to legal counsel.
The focus of this article is on the Fourth Amendment, which specifically protects against “unreasonable” searches and seizures. This means that, generally, authorities must obtain a warrant from a judge before conducting any search or seizure of your property or person.
What is most significant, perhaps, is the use of the word “unreasonable,” which opens the door for police and other enforcement agencies to conduct searches without warrants so long as they are “reasonable,” which usually means there must be probable cause. For instance, if a police officer sees someone fleeing from a store with stolen goods, that officer can chase down the presumed criminal and search not only his person but his belongings.
If you’re facing a criminal charge in Dallas or Corpus Christi, Texas, and believe you may have been the victim of an illegal search and seizure of your person or property, contact The Torres Law Firm. We will happily meet with you to discuss the circumstances, develop a defensive strategy, and determine whether or not your Fourth Amendment rights have been violated.
Your Rights Under the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In addition to the word “unreasonable,” another notable phrase is “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” showing the scope of the amendment. It is designed to protect each person’s privacy against “unreasonable” intrusion.
Another important phrase is the one that starts with “particularly describing.” British common law at the time also required warrants, but they didn’t have to be specific. Under the Fourth Amendment, a warrant must specify “the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Warrants must be specific.
Warranted Search and Seizure
Suppose authorities suspect Bill of running a Ponzi scheme from his home. They obtain a warrant to go into his place of residence and search for related evidence. They can thus seize bank records, computers and laptops, hard drives, and other documentary or digital evidence. However, while searching they come upon a stash of cocaine. With that discovery, they then charge Bill with possession of a controlled substance, or worse with distributing it. Is that legal?
Under the doctrine of “fruit of the poisoned tree,” any evidence obtained that was not authorized in the warrant presumably cannot be used in a criminal case. However, they could thereafter monitor Bill’s activities and try to build a case on their own involving illegal possession, sale, or distribution of a controlled substance.
Warrantless Searches and Seizures
A brief example was given earlier of a suspected thief fleeing a store with a bag of what might be stolen items. A police officer witnessing this would have enough probable cause to search the suspect’s person and anything in his possession, such as a bag of stolen goods.
However, if someone were just strolling down the street with a bag of items from a retail store and the officer thought to himself, “I bet he stole that stuff,” that would not be considered a “reasonable” search under the Fourth Amendment. Even if a search were conducted and stolen items found, there could certainly be a Fourth Amendment challenge.
Understanding the Exclusionary Rule
The exclusionary rule is the legal principle surrounding evidence obtained through a search that goes beyond what a warrant authorizes or involves a warrantless search without a clear probable cause. The exclusionary rule is actually fairly recent historically, evolving from a 1961 Supreme Court decision.
If a defendant can get evidence thrown out because it was illegally obtained, there is the possibility that prosecutors may lack enough other evidence to proceed to trial, but it is also possible that they do have enough other evidence. Still, every challenge that makes the prosecutors’ job harder is a plus for the defendant. Maybe prosecutors will lower the charge, or accept a plea deal to a lesser charge or to probation only.
Contact an Attorney With Your Questions and Concerns
If you’re facing a criminal charge, you need experienced criminal defense representation. The moment you’ve taken in for questioning, contact an attorney to protect your rights going forward. Don’t even answer questions until you’ve spoken with an attorney. “Anything you say can and will be used against you,” as advised by the Miranda Rights warning.
If you’re in the Corpus Christi and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, contact us at The Torres Law Firm with all your questions and concerns. As your defense attorneys, we will thoroughly examine your case and challenge any evidence the prosecutors claim to have