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When Can the Police Search Without a Warrant?

While it is true that in most cases, police officers are barred from searching someone’s personal belongings, vehicle, or home without first obtaining a warrant, there are some circumstances in which this formality is not necessary. One of the most common exceptions to the search and seizure rule is when police officers claim that a certain situation involves an exigent circumstance. In these cases, someone accused of a crime may find themselves without the Fourth Amendment protections that he or she expects. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for law enforcement officers to claim exigent circumstances when they don’t actually exist, in which case, a defendant could have the evidence brought against them suppressed by the court. For help ensuring that the search and seizure executed at your own home was lawful, please contact our experienced Houston criminal defense lawyers today. 

Fourth Amendment Privacy Protections 

The Fourth Amendment guarantees private citizens protection from unlawful searches and seizures. This means that in most cases, police officers must obtain a search warrant from a judge or a magistrate before they can search someone’s home or private property. When officers fail to take this step, any evidence found in the resulting search will usually be presumed unlawful and so cannot be used against a person in court, unless the police can provide proof of a valid exception. 

gavel and book in court room

Exigent Circumstances 

One of the few exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s protections is known as the exigent circumstances rule, or the emergency doctrine. Unfortunately, Texas law doesn’t specifically address what qualifies as an exigent circumstance, so courts are generally left to make these determinations on a case by case basis. Under this doctrine, there are, however, three main categories of exigent circumstances that are typically found to justify a search without a warrant, including:

  • The intrusion is meant to provide aid to someone who is imminent danger of being injured or killed;
  • The intrusion occurred while in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect; or
  • The intrusion is necessary to prevent the destruction of contraband or other evidence. 

If prosecutors cannot prove that one of these exigent circumstances existed, then a warrantless search will generally be found unconstitutional. 

Filing a Motion to Suppress Evidence 

Proving that police officers didn’t follow protocol when conducting a search could result in the evidence obtained during that search being suppressed. These motions are based entirely on a claim that the government unlawfully violated a defendant’s constitutional rights to privacy. Furthermore, the burden of proof during these types of hearing is placed on the government, which means that once a defendant makes an objection, it will be up to the prosecutor to convince the judge that the officers were operating within a valid legal exception based on exigent circumstances. A successful motion to suppress evidence could fatally weaken or even destroy a prosecutor’s case. 

Set Up an Initial Consultation in Houston, Galveston or League City

If your home or private property was searched without a warrant, you may have a good chance of defeating any subsequent criminal charges. Please call The Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates at (281) 280-0100 to learn more about filing a motion to suppress unlawfully seized evidence.