Many people are not aware that under certain circumstances, Texas police can conduct searches without a warrant. In these specific cases, the police can enter your home or property without even knocking.  

You might assume that you are safe from an intrusion by police when you are inside your own home or apartment, but you would be wrong in some cases. Unwarranted entries may sound shocking, but they do happen. According to Texas state law, police officers can conduct searches and seizures without a warrant in numerous situations. 

It is important to understand that there are legal exceptions to your constitutional right to privacy protection, especially if law enforcement officers search your property without a warrant. One of the most common legal exceptions is when the police claim that a certain situation involves an “exigent circumstance.”

Standard Privacy Protections Provided by the Fourth Amendment and the Texas Bill of Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees protection against unlawful searches and seizures. Typically, police need a search warrant to search a person’s home or other private property. A judge or magistrate must approve a search or property seizure warrant.

If police conduct a search without a warrant, that search is presumed to be unlawful. This holds true unless the police can show that they are applying a valid exception to the rule.

State and Federal Law Offer Safeguards and Privacy Protections

In Coolidge v. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court put it this way:

“[T]he most basic constitutional rule in this area is that ‘searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable’ under the Fourth Amendment–subject only to a few specially established and well-delineated exceptions.”

The Fourth Amendment provides a right to privacy at the federal level. But this right exists at the state level, too. The Texas Bill of Rights further spells out the protections for privacy. Article 1, Section 9 of the Texas Bill of Rights reads:

“[t]he people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and possessions, from all unreasonable seizures or searches, and no warrant to search any place, or to seize any person or thing, shall issue without describing them as near as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation.” 

Both state and federal laws emphasize the importance of an individual’s right to privacy. These laws stress protection against unlawful impositions by the government and law enforcement. Profound importance is placed on these protections to ensure that the right to privacy is rarely subverted.

The prohibitions on illegal searches and seizures are significant because they protect against individual law enforcement officers deciding to conduct searches based on heightened emotion or an insufficient cause. Unfortunately, the reality is that sometimes the police do make hasty decisions about where and when to conduct searches.

Sometimes, it is unclear whether the police have violated someone’s right to privacy. When this happens, the police may claim that the situation involved an “exigent circumstance.”

Understanding Exigent Circumstances

The legal concept of exigent circumstances is sometimes referred to as the “emergency doctrine.” The idea of exigent circumstances applies to both federal and state prosecutions. 

Texas state law officially recognizes law enforcement’s legal authority to work around the constitutional mandate of the right to privacy in certain situations. 

The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure notes that:

“In each case enumerated where arrests may be lawfully made without a warrant, the officer or person making the arrest is justified in adopting all the measures which he might adopt in cases of arrest under warrant, except that an officer making an arrest without a warrant may not enter a residence to make the arrest unless: 

(1) a person who resides in the residence consents to the entry; or

(2) exigent circumstances require that the officer making the arrest enter the residence without the consent of a resident or without a warrant.”

As you may have noticed, the phrase “exigent circumstances” is quite vague. 

The Texas Legislature has not passed any further clarifying guidance to help define “exigent circumstances” in a more specific way. The use of this imprecise phrasing means that police officers have a great deal of leeway. In which case, they may act in ways that are impatient, emotionally heated, or purposefully malicious.

While the Texas Legislature has not further specified the term, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has laid out three general categories of exigent circumstances. Criminal defense lawyers draw on these prior precedents to make the strongest case for their clients. In the following situations, warrantless searches or intrusions are usually considered lawful:

  • If the intrusion is meant to provide aid to someone that police officers have reason to believe is in need of aid
     
  • If the intrusion protects law enforcement officers from an armed and dangerous person
     
  • If the intrusion prevents the destruction of contraband or other evidence, especially for a search involving a suspected drug crime

If the state cannot establish that there were exigent circumstances, a warrantless search is considered unlawful.

Contacting a Trusted Personal Attorney

As we discussed, there are legal exceptions to a person’s right to privacy. Sometimes, the police can subvert constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. But in these cases, police officers must have probable cause and exigent circumstances. 

The constitutionality of warrantless searches is determined on a case-by-case basis. The overseeing judge decides the legality of a warrantless search. How the judge understands the phrase “exigent circumstances” is very important. 

Defendants arrested based on a warrantless search should always hire an experienced attorney. A skilled criminal defense lawyer can make the best case for the defendant. Using legal precedents, an attorney can protect their client’s constitutional right to privacy. 

A seasoned attorney will draw on prior court cases to argue for their client. If the police have conducted a search in your home without a warrant, contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.