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When Can the Police Search My Car Without a Warrant?

Drug crimes cases in Texas often start when a police officer conducts a search and finds illegal narcotics on the accused person or within his property, such as a car. Normally police must get a warrant before searching you or your property without your consent. But there is a critical exception for a search conducted “incident to arrest.” This exception allows a police officer, for example, to pat you down and seize any potentially incriminating evidence on your person.

Court of Criminal Appeals Rules Warrantless Drug Search Legal

But does a search incident to arrest also cover your car? According to the U.S. Supreme Court, warrantless searches are permissible in such cases if one of two conditions exist:

  1. The person under arrest is “unsecured” and he retains “immediate control” over the vehicle; or
  2. The police officer has reason to believe that “evidence of the offense of arrest” is located in the car.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently considered the application of the second condition. Specifically, the court overruled two lower court rulings that held a police search for drugs illegal because it was unrelated to the original subject of the arrest.

Here is briefly what happened: Around 5 a.m. one morning, a police officer saw a jeep parked with the driver’s door open. The officer approached the vehicle and saw a man asleep in the driver’s seat. Once backup arrived, the police woke the man–the defendant in this case–and started to ask him questions.

The defendant did not have a driver’s license or other form of identification on him. But he volunteered his name and birthday, as well as the fact he had “outstanding warrants for traffic violations.” The officers confirmed there were such warrants and placed the defendant under arrest for that offense.

As part of the arrest process, the officer conducted a pat-down search and found “two small baggies of cocaine” in a cigarette pack. The officer then conducted a warrantless search of the defendant’s car. There she found additional cocaine.

The trial court and the intermediate appeals court both held the police search of the car was illegal. The Supreme Court’s exception only applies to “evidence of the offense of the arrest,” which in this case was the outstanding traffic warrants. As the lower courts observed, there was no reason to believe the police officer would find evidence of traffic violations in the defendant’s car.

But the Court of Criminal Appeals said that took too restrictive a view of the Supreme Court’s rules. In this case, the police found illegal drugs on the defendant’s person while arresting him for the traffic violations. This gave the police “probable cause” to search the vehicle incident to the “newly-discovered offense” of drug possession. So long as a search “occurs close in time to the defendant’s formal arrest,” the Court of Criminal Appeals held the police do not require a warrant under these circumstances.

Have You Been Charged With a Drug Offense?

Anytime you are detained by the police, even for a seemingly routine traffic stop, remember you have the right to remain silent. Do not volunteer any information that may be used against you. And if you are arrested and searched, also remember you have the right to work with an experienced Houston drug charges lawyer. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you are facing any kind of serious criminal charges in the Houston, Galveston, or League City areas.