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Can Houston Police Legally Search You for Drugs During a Weapons Frisk?

Drug charges obviously require drugs. And police typically recover drugs when they search suspects or their property. As you probably know, the police typically require a search warrant to conduct such a search. But there are multiple exceptions to this general rule. For instance, if a police officer has “reasonable suspicion” to suspect someone is engaged in criminal activity, that officer may detain and search the suspect without a warrant–and if any drugs are recovered, they may be used as evidence in court.

Texas Court Upholds 40-Year Prison Sentence for Meth Possession

A recent Texas appeals court decision, McGee v. State, helps illustrate how these rules work in practice. This case began when a police officer received a call from a colleague who was investigating a car burglary. The officer learned that an iPad and an expensive handbag had been taken from the victim’s car. The iPad contained an internal tracking device that let the police know the device was located at a nearby hospital.

The officer went to the hospital. A security guard identified two people–the defendant and a woman–as “suspects of the burglary.” The officer then detained the defendant and proceeded to “frisk him for weapons.” During the frisk, the officer recovered a knife. He also found a “plastic baggie,” which the officer believed to be illegal narcotics. Indeed, it turned out the baggie contained methamphetamine.

A grand jury later indicted the defendant for possession of between 4 and 200 grams of methamphetamine. Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress the drugs as the result of an unconstitutional search. The judge denied the motion, the jury eventually found the defendant guilty of the possession charge, and the court sentenced the defendant to 40 years in prison.

On appeal, the defendant again challenged the legality of the officer’s search at the hospital. But the Court of Appeals upheld the defendant’s conviction and sentence. The appeals court said the officer’s detention of the suspect without a warrant was justified based on “reasonable suspicion.” And once an officer lawfully detains a suspect, the officer is constitutionally permitted to conduct a “protective frisk” when there is reason to believe the suspect might possess a weapon. Here, the hospital security guard informed the officer that the defendant “had a pocket knife clipped to his right pocket.” The defendant then informed the officer he had a second knife in his pocket. This is what prompted the frisk leading to the discovery of the plastic baggie.

Based on the circumstances, the appeals court said it was reasonable for the officer to reach into the defendant’s pocket to seize the second knife. And given the officer’s extensive training and experience with narcotics, the appeals court also credited his testimony that he could immediately recognize the content of the baggie as illegal drugs. Accordingly, the officer’s actions were lawful in the eyes of the court.

Speak with a Houston Drug Crimes Defense Lawyer Today

Many drug cases hinge on the legality of a police officer’s arrest or search. That is why it is crucial to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney if you are facing felony drug possession charges. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need immediate advice or assistance.