The Fourth Amendment gives people the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, and courts in Texas and around the country take this protection seriously. However, there are a few situations where the Fourth Amendment does not apply and police officers can enter a home without first obtaining a search warrant. Evidence seized during warrantless searches is often permitted by judges because it was seen in plain sight or suspects consented, and it is sometimes deemed admissible because the police officers involved had exigent circumstances.
Exigent circumstances is an umbrella term that covers situations where violating rights protected by the Fourth Amendment is in the public interest. The courts have determined that police officers had exigent circumstances and could enter homes without search warrants when they acted to stop themselves or others from being harmed, prevent evidence from being destroyed or capture fleeing suspects. Police are also allowed to act without a warrant to protect public health or safety. This is known as the community caretaker exception.
The community caretaker exception
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case involving the community caretaker exception. On May 17, the justices ruled unanimously that police violated rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment when they entered the home of Rhode Island man without a search warrant to seize his firearms. Police acted after the man’s wife told them he had made remarks during an argument that suggested he was considering ending his life. The justices ruled to limit the community caretaker exception even though the Department of Justice urged them to back the police.
Excluding evidence seized during warranted searches
Evidence is sometimes excluded in criminal cases even when police officers discovered it during warranted searches. Experienced criminal defense attorneys could argue that such evidence should not be admitted if police officers misled judges when they applied for a search warrant or exceeded the scope of the warrant by searching in areas they did not mention in their application. When evidence is ruled inadmissible by a judge, all subsequent discoveries made by police as a result of the tainted evidence is also excluded under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.