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Search Warrants in Texas and Safeguarding Constitutional Protections Against an Improper Search and Seizure

Posted by Anthony Smith | Jul 07, 2023

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. It is a fundamental protection designed to prevent arbitrary intrusions by law enforcement officials. In Texas, search warrants play a crucial role in upholding these constitutional rights, providing a framework that ensures the balance between public safety and individual privacy. Below, we'll explore search warrants in Texas and the constitutional safeguards against search and seizures.

Understanding Search Warrants and an Improper Search

A search warrant is a legal document issued by a judge or magistrate that authorizes law enforcement officials to conduct a search of a specific location or seize particular items. It serves as a means to protect individuals from unwarranted intrusions into their privacy. To obtain a search warrant, law enforcement officers must demonstrate to the issuing authority that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that evidence or contraband related to the crime is likely to be found at the specified location.

An improper search in Texas is an illegal search that violates an individual's constitutional right to privacy. 

This issue relates to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which 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.

This Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement in places where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. This includes their residence, property, and body, as well as specific areas of a motor vehicle (such as a locked trunk), and certain public places (for example, a public restroom stall). 

For a search to be reasonable, and therefore proper:

  • Police must have probable cause to believe incriminating evidence exists and they obtain a search warrant from a judge, or
  • The circumstances make it lawful for police to conduct a search without a warrant. 

Probable Cause, Affidavits, and the Magistrate

Probable cause is a standard of evidence that requires a reasonable belief that a crime has been or is being committed, based on facts and circumstances. When seeking a search warrant, law enforcement officers must submit a sworn written statement known as an affidavit, which outlines the facts and evidence supporting the need for a warrant. The affidavit must provide sufficient detail to enable the issuing authority to make an informed decision regarding the issuance of the warrant.

In Texas, judges or magistrates are responsible for reviewing search warrant applications and determining whether the submitted affidavit establishes probable cause. They act as neutral arbiters, ensuring that the rights of individuals are protected and that searches are not conducted without just cause. Judges or magistrates carefully scrutinize (hopefully) the information provided in the affidavit and assess its credibility and reliability before deciding whether to issue a search warrant.

Proper versus Improper Searches and Exceptions to Search Warrant in Texas

A court will consider several factors when deciding whether a search was conducted properly. A proper, or lawful, search is conducted:

  • Under a proper warrant;
  • Without a proper warrant but where the police believe in good faith there is a lawful basis for the search–the “good faith exception.” (For example, if the police rely in good faith on an invalid search warrant and otherwise behave properly during the search.)
  • Where the circumstances mean a warrant is not required

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement:

While search warrants are the preferred method for conducting searches in Texas, there are specific exceptions where a warrant may not be required. Some common exceptions include:

  1. Consent: If an individual voluntarily consents to a search, law enforcement officers may proceed without a warrant.

  2. Exigent Circumstances: When there is an immediate threat to life, risk of the destruction of evidence, or the pursuit of a suspect, officers may conduct a search without a warrant. On occasion there still must be a lawful detention, stop, an encounter, or reason to pursue to get to a point where exigent circumstances arise for law enforcement. 

  3. Plain View: If law enforcement officers observe evidence or contraband (evidence of a crime being committed) in plain view while lawfully present, they may seize it without a warrant

Terry Frisk - Additional Exception to Warrant Requirement

One other exception to the Warrant Requirement is the "Terry Frisk." It is often misconstrued and incorrectly applied by law enforcement. 

A Terry frisk, also known as a Terry stop or a stop-and-frisk, refers to a limited search conducted by law enforcement officers when they have reasonable suspicion that an individual is armed and dangerous or involved in criminal activity. The term "Terry" comes from the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), which established the legal basis for this type of search.

The rationale behind a Terry frisk is to ensure the safety of law enforcement officers while balancing individual rights. It allows officers to take precautionary measures to protect themselves and others without the need for a full search warrant. However, it is important to note that a Terry frisk is distinct from a full search and is limited in scope.

To conduct a Terry frisk, certain conditions must be met:

  1. Reasonable Suspicion: Law enforcement officers must have reasonable suspicion based on specific and articulable facts that criminal activity is afoot or that the person being frisked is armed and poses a threat to the safety of the officers or others.

  2. Limited Pat-Down: During a Terry frisk, officers are permitted to pat down the outer clothing of the individual being detained to search for weapons or contraband that could pose a threat. The purpose is to ensure officer safety and prevent potential harm.

  3. No Full Search: The Terry frisk is not intended to be an invasive or comprehensive search. It is limited to a quick pat-down of the outer clothing, and officers should not manipulate or manipulate items inside pockets or containers unless they feel something that clearly identifies it as contraband or a weapon.

It is important to emphasize that a Terry frisk is a lower level of intrusion compared to a full search. It is based on reasonable suspicion rather than the higher standard of probable cause required for a search warrant. The purpose is to address immediate safety concerns rather than to gather evidence of a specific crime.

If during a Terry frisk, an officer discovers contraband or evidence that is not immediately identifiable as a weapon, it may lead to further investigation or the arrest of the individual. However, any evidence obtained during the frisk that is not related to officer safety may be subject to challenge in court.

Terry frisks have been the subject of ongoing legal interpretation and scrutiny to ensure that they are conducted in a manner consistent with constitutional rights. Courts closely analyze the specific circumstances surrounding a Terry frisk to determine whether the officer's actions were justified based on reasonable suspicion and whether the scope of the search was reasonable under the circumstances.

A Terry frisk allows law enforcement officers to conduct a limited pat-down search based on reasonable suspicion to ensure their safety and the safety of others. It is a tool aimed at balancing individual rights and public safety.

Improper Searches

An improper, or unlawful, search occurs when:

  • The police conduct a search without a warrant in circumstances where a warrant is required
  • The police conduct a search under an improper warrant and the good-faith exception does not apply
  • The search is conducted in a way that violates a person's reasonable expectation of privacy

If these circumstances exist, a defendant may file a motion with the court asking it to find the search improper and apply the exclusionary rule. 

An Improper Search and the Exclusionary Rule

In Texas criminal law, the exclusionary rule is a legal principle that prohibits the use of unlawfully obtained evidence in court proceedings. The exclusionary rule acts as a safeguard to ensure that evidence obtained in violation of a person's constitutional rights is not used against them in a criminal trial.

Under the exclusionary rule, if evidence is acquired through an unlawful search or seizure, it is considered "fruit of the poisonous tree." This means that not only the illegally obtained evidence itself but also any evidence derived from it is typically excluded from being presented in court.

In Texas, the exclusionary rule is applied in both state and federal courts, serving as a vital protection for individuals facing criminal charges. The rule is enforced to deter law enforcement officers from engaging in unconstitutional conduct and to preserve the integrity of the criminal justice system.

It is worth mentioning that the application of the exclusionary rule can be a complex legal issue, and courts carefully analyze the facts and circumstances of each case to determine whether the rule should be applied. The goal is to ensure that individuals' constitutional rights are protected while also considering the interests of justice.

The exclusionary rule in Texas criminal law prohibits the use of evidence obtained through unconstitutional searches or seizures. Its purpose is to deter unlawful police conduct and safeguard the rights of individuals involved in criminal proceedings. By excluding unlawfully obtained evidence, the rule seeks to uphold the integrity and fairness of the criminal justice system in Texas.

When to Hire a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Counties in the State of Texas

A court can suppress evidence found during an improper search, meaning it cannot be used against the defendant during their trial. An experienced criminal defense attorney will examine your case and determine whether your rights were violated.

If the prosecution is relying on evidence found during a police search, you should talk with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. They can advise you whether the correct search and seizure procedures were followed. 

If your constitutional rights have been violated by an improper search, our defense lawyers can help you argue that the evidence found during the search should be suppressed at your trial. If successful, this may weaken the prosecution's case against you and help you defend the charges. To learn more, you should contact Law Office of Anthony Ray Smith, PLLC today by calling 713-242-8917 or submitting an online form today and schedule a free consultation.

About the Author

Anthony Smith

Anthony started The Law Office of Anthony Ray Smith after his previous position as a Felony Prosecutor at the Galveston County District Attorneys Office. Anthony now focuses on representing individuals in their efforts of solving difficult legal issues and asserting their rights while seeking ju...

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