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Can Police Search My Luggage Without a Warrant If I’m Arrested at the Airport?

The U.S. Constitution generally prohibits warrantless police searches of a suspect’s property. There are, however, multiple exceptions to this general rule. One such exception is for a “search incident to arrest.” This exception provides that when police lawfully arrest a suspect, the officers may conduct a search of the person and the area within the suspect’s “immediate control” without first obtaining a warrant.

The primary purpose of this exception is to allow officers to search for weapons or any other item that might place the officers or members of the public in danger. However, if the police happen to uncover evidence that might otherwise incriminate the suspect–such as illegal drugs–such items may be introduced in court under the search-incident-to-arrest exception.

Court of Criminal Appeals: Bags Still “Associated With” Defendant Despite Arrest

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently clarified the scope of this exception when applied to luggage carried by a suspect who was detained and arrested at an airport. The basic facts of this case, Price v. State, are fairly simple. A San Antonio police detective received a tip that a certain individual–the defendant in this case–was scheduled to arrive at the city’s airport on a particular day carrying “a quantity of marijuana he had purchased from out of state.”

The police went to the airport. They observed the defendant retrieving suitcases from the baggage claim. As the defendant exited the terminal, the detectives detained him, seizes his luggage, and place him under arrest. After the defendant was handcuffed, the officers conducted a warrantless search of the luggage, which revealed “a large quantity of marijuana in vacuum-sealed bags,” according to court records.

An intermediate Texas appeals court held this search was illegal. The appellate court reasoned that since the suitcases were not “immediately associated” with the defendant at the moment of his arrest–the bags were already under the control of the police–the search-incident-to-arrest exception did not apply. The court, therefore, reversed the trial judge’s prior ruling holding the search was legal.

The Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) sided with the prosecution and the trial judge, however, and reversed the intermediate court. The CCA said it was incorrect for the intermediate court to make a categorical statement that “suitcases and luggage should never be regarded as ‘immediately associated with the person’ of an arrestee.” And under the facts of this particular case, there was no question the suitcases belonged to the defendant and would “accompany him into custody.” As such, the police were entitled to conduct a warrantless search. Indeed, the CCA noted that even if the officers had not conducted their search at the site of the arrest, they would have inevitably made a “protective search” of the bags after the defendant was taken to the police station.

Speak with a Houston Drug Crimes Defense Lawyer Today

Drug cases often live or die based on the legality of police searches. That is why you should never hesitate to challenge a questionable search. An experienced criminal defense attorney can provide you with zealous representation in this area. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Galveston, League City or Houston today if you need assistance with any criminal matter.