Warrantless Search & Seizure Upheld Under Exception to the Constitutional Warrant Requirement
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search & seizure.” Most people believe that a search without a warrant is an automatic violation of the 4th Amendment. Not so. Through years of criminal cases, the courts have crafted numerous exceptions to the warrant requirement. Below is a case brief from a recent federal case in which several of these exceptions to the warrant requirement were employed against the defendant.
United States v. Conlan – U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit
Over a one-year period, defendant Conlan sent a series of threatening emails and text messages to a woman he dated as a teenager. The police issued an arrest warrant for Conlan for harassment, and learned that he was registered in a local motel. After the officers saw Conlan’s vehicle in the parking lot, they had the motel manager call Conlan to the front desk where they arrested him. When an officer asked Conlan if he wished to get anything from his room before being taken to the police station, Conlan said yes. Officers accompanied Conlan to his room and retrieved his wallet. While in Conlan’s room, the lead investigator saw a laptop computer and two cell phones lying on the bed and ordered another officer to seize them. A subsequent search revealed the cell phones had been used to call the victim’s workplace and obtain directions to her house, and the laptop used to conduct Internet searches for the victim’s name. The officers also searched Conlan’s car, which was located in the motel parking lot and seized a loaded handgun and riot stick. ￼￼￼￼￼
A trial, Conlan filed a motion to suppress the items seized from his motel room. By having the manager summon him to the front desk, Conlan argued the officers created the situation where he would be without his effects and forced into requesting a return to his room. Conlan also argued the officers unlawfully searched his car without a warrant.
First, the court held that if the officers wanted access to Conlan’s room, they could have executed the arrest warrant there. In addition, the court found there was no evidence to suggest the officers pressured Conlan into returning to his room. Finally, when Conlan told the officers he wanted to return to his room, the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment by accompanying him there.
Next, the court held the officers made a lawful plain view seizure of Conlan’s cell phones and laptop computer because the incriminating nature of these items was immediately apparent. The incriminating nature of an item is “immediately apparent” if an officer has probable cause to believe that the item is either evidence of a crime or contraband. Here, the lead investigator who ordered the seizure of Conlan’s laptop and cell phones had first-hand knowledge of Conlan’s harassing electronic communications; therefore, he had probable cause to believe these items constituted evidence of the crime of harassment.
Finally, the court held the warrantless search of Conlan’s vehicle was lawful. Before locating Conlan at the motel, the officers knew that Conlan had recently driven his car past the victim’s house. This act formed part of Conlan’s course of criminal conduct and provided the officers with probable cause to believe the vehicle was evidence and an instrumentality of the crime of harassment. Consequently, the officers were entitled to impound and search Conlan’s vehicle.
Warrantless Search Defense Attorneys – Fort Worth, Texas
If you believe that you have been the victim of an unlawful search and you are currently under investigation or charged with a crime in Texas, contact a criminal defense attorney today. Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC offers free consultations on all criminal cases.