Search & Seizures

Why am I here?

There are three categories of citizen-police interactions: (1) encounters, (2) investigative detentions, and (3) arrests. The totality of the circumstances will determine whether the police interaction is an encounter, detention, or arrest. If a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police and go about his business, the interaction is an encounter for which the Fourth Amendment is not implicated. The key question is whether the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that the person was not free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter. If a person would not be free to decline the request or terminate the encounter, the interaction is then either a detention or an arrest. Most routine traffic stops are detentions rather than an encounter or arrest. Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, an officer is justified in detaining a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. An arrest requires probable cause and an encounter requires neither reasonable suspicion nor probable cause.

Duration of the Detention

A routine traffic stop is a detention and must be reasonable. The general rule is that an investigative stop can last no longer than necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop. During a traffic stop, law-enforcement officers may request information such as a driver's license and vehicle registration, and may conduct a computer check of that information. After the computer check is completed, and the officer learns that the driver has a valid license and no outstanding warrants and that the vehicle is not stolen, the traffic stop investigation is fully resolved. There are no rigid time limitations on these detentions. But, once the reason for the stop has been satisfied, the stop may not be used as a "fishing expedition" for unrelated criminal activity. Once an investigation of a traffic violation is concluded, an officer may no longer lawfully detain a driver unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe another offense has been or is being committed. In determining whether a traffic offense detention is reasonable, a court will consider whether the officer diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel his suspicions quickly, during the time necessary to detain the driver. After the purpose of a traffic stop has been accomplished, a police officer may ask for consent to search a vehicle; however, if consent is refused, the officer may not detain the occupants or vehicle further unless reasonable suspicion of some criminal activity exists.

Motive of Officer

An objectively valid traffic stop is not unlawful just because the detaining officer has some ulterior motive for making the stop. An officer may stop and detain a person if the officer has reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation was in progress or had been committed. Commission of a traffic offense in the presence of an officer gives the officer reasonable suspicion to stop for the traffic violation and conduct an investigation of the traffic-law infraction. An officer's subjective intent is relevant only to a credibility determination of his stated reasons for stopping or arresting an individual. Police may validly stop a vehicle for a traffic violation so long as the stop would be objectively reasonable, regardless of whether the stop is a mere pretext to investigate unrelated criminal conduct.

How Can They Do That?

When a traffic violation is committed within a police officer's view, the officer may lawfully stop and detain the person for the violation. No additional probable cause or reasonable suspicion is required. A peace officer may arrest, without warrant, a person found committing a violation of the Texas traffic laws because a violation of the traffic laws constitutes probable cause to arrest the violator. When an officer has probable cause to arrest a driver for a traffic offense, the officer may search not only the driver, but also the automobile's interior.

Automobile Exception to Warrant Requirement

If a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment permits police to search the whole vehicle without a warrant. As the Supreme Court stated, a finding of probable cause alone satisfies the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

Where Can They Look?

If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search. When the so-called "automobile exception" applies, then the police may search every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search. This permits officers to search every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search that forms the basis of probable cause, including any containers or packages found inside the car, without qualification as to ownership.

Dog Sniffs

A sniff of the exterior of a car by a trained canine during a lawful traffic stop is not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Once the detention is extended beyond the initial traffic-stop, however, officers must have reasonable suspicion that the car contains narcotics in order to continue the detention. An initial traffic stop justifying issuance of warning can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete that mission. An officer may inquire into matters unrelated to the purpose of the traffic stop as long as the stop is not unreasonably extended. A traffic stop may last as long as reasonably necessary to check the driver's license and car registration and to check for outstanding warrants. The law is well established that as soon as a drug-detection dog alerts on a car, officers have probable cause to search the car without a warrant. A dog alerting to the presence of narcotics in a car provide the authorities probable cause to arrest the driver without a warrant. If officers have probable cause to arrest, they can also conduct a search incident to arrest. It is irrelevant whether the arrest occurred immediately before or after the search, as long as probable cause to arrest was established before the search was conducted.

The Poisonous Tree

The "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine generally precludes the use of evidence, both direct and indirect, obtained following an illegal arrest. Evidence sufficiently attenuated from the unlawful arrest is not considered to have been tainted. The State has the burden of proving attenuation. In deciding whether the evidence from a defendant's car, which was obtained after the driver consented to the search of his car, was sufficiently attenuated as to permit its use at trial, a court will consider (1) whether Miranda warnings were given; (2) the temporal proximity of the arrest and the confession; (3) the presence of intervening circumstances; and (4) the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.

Inventory Search

Opening closed containers while conducting an inventory is lawful only when there is evidence of a policy or established procedure that allows for such. The Fourth Amendment allows police to open closed-even locked-containers as part of the inventory of an automobile as long as they do so in accordance with standardized police procedures. An inventory of an ashtray was permissible because it was not a closed container. The inventory of a closed container is permissible if the police department's policy is to open locked containers if the police had access to the keys of the container. The burden is on the State to show a lawful inventory.

Consent

Consent to search is one of the well-established exceptions to the constitutional requirement that a police officer have probable cause before conducting a search of a vehicle. The State must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the consent to search was voluntary. The totality of the circumstances is considered to assess whether a defendant's consent to search was voluntary. A nonexhaustive list of factors to consider includes: (1) the accused's age, (2) the accused's education and intelligence, (3) whether the accused is informed of his right to refuse consent, (4) any constitutional advice given to the accused, (5) the length of the interaction with police, (6) the repetitive nature of questioning, and (7) the use of physical punishment. After the purpose of a traffic stop has been accomplished, a police officer may ask for consent to search a vehicle; however, if consent is refused, the officer may not detain the occupants or vehicle further unless reasonable suspicion of some criminal activity exists. When a police officer retains an individual's necessary travel documents such as a driver's license or an alien registration card, the individual's consent thereafter may be considered to not be an independent act of free will.

Plain View

The plain-view doctrine involves no invasion of privacy. Thus, if an item is in plain view, neither its observation nor its seizure involves any invasion of privacy. The rationale of the plain-view doctrine is that if contraband is left in open view and is observed by a police officer from a lawful vantage point, there has been no invasion of a legitimate expectation of privacy and thus no search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. An object is seized in plain view if three requirements are met. First, law enforcement officials must lawfully be where the object can be plainly viewed. Second, the incriminating character of the object in plain view must be immediately apparent to the officials. Third, the officials must have the right to access the object. The second prong, the immediacy requirement, requires only a showing of probable cause that the item discovered is incriminating evidence; actual knowledge of the incriminating evidence is not required. An officer may rely on training and experience to draw inferences and make deductions as to the nature of the item seen.

Search Incident to Arrest

Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense causing the arrest. Therefore when the driver is in the backseat of a patrol vehicle following his arrest, the authorities cannot rely on the warrantless search incident to an arrest exception to justify a search of the automobile unless there is a reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.

Who Can Complain?

Proof of a reasonable expectation of privacy is at the forefront of all Fourth Amendment claims. Any defendant seeking to suppress evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment must first show that he personally had a reasonable expectation of privacy that the government invaded. The issue of standing involves two inquiries: first, whether defendant has alleged an injury in fact; and second, whether the proponent is asserting his own legal rights and interests rather than basing his claim for relief upon the rights of third parties. Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights which, like some other constitutional rights, may not be vicariously asserted. In other words, he must prove that he was a victim of the unlawful search or seizure. A defendant does not have standing to complain about the invasion of someone else's personal rights. The intrusion of a vehicle stop is personal to those in the car when it occurs. Passengers as well as drivers have standing to challenge a vehicle stop or prolonged detention.