In a recent blog post, we looked at the last time the Supreme Court of the United States talked about the law of driving while intoxicated (DWI): The case Birchfield v. North Dakota. That case dealt with an important topic that will return to the Court in a pending DWI case, State v. Mitchell: the need for police to either secure a warrant before searching for evidence of a DWI crime or justify their warrantless search by showing it fell within one of the six exceptions to the warrant requirement.
The Fourth Amendment, Searches, and Warrants
Simply put, you have a Fourth Amendment right to be free from searches by law enforcement that are “unreasonable.” Searches are presumed to be “unreasonable” – and therefore in violation of your rights – if police do not have a warrant.
However, if the police show that their search fell into any of the six exceptions to the warrant requirement, then their search becomes “reasonable” and therefore permissible, in spite of their lack of a warrant.
1. Evidence in Plain View
If evidence of a crime is in plain view of a law enforcement officer who is in a place where they have a legal right to be, then a warrant is not required to perform a search.
2. The “Open Fields” Exception
Police can also perform a warrantless search anywhere you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This is an extension of the “plain view” exception but has become quite a drastic one because it allows police to look for evidence anywhere you could not expect privacy, even if that takes them onto your property.
3. A Search Incident to an Arrest
Police do not need a warrant to search a person and their immediate surroundings for evidence of a crime when they make an arrest. The theory behind this exception to the warrant requirement is that police need to be able to check someone's pockets and anywhere within reach for weapons in order to keep themselves safe.
4. Cars and Vehicles
Police also do not need a warrant to search a car or other motor vehicle. Because these vehicles are by their very nature moveable, the law allows police to conduct a search in them without waiting for a search warrant to process.
5. Exigent Circumstances
When there are exigent circumstances that require police to act immediately in order to respond to an emergency or to prevent evidence from being destroyed, they do not need to secure a warrant before conducting a search for evidence. This is the warrant exception that police use most often in the DWI context: They claim that the dissipation of a DWI suspect's blood alcohol content (BAC) amounts to the destruction of evidence needed to create an exigent circumstance.
Finally, there are consent searches. No matter how “unreasonable” a search would be, if a suspect consents to police performing it, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit it.
Board Certified DWI Defense Lawyer in Houston
Satisfying one of these exceptions to the warrant requirement is a crucial part of many criminal cases, including lots of those involving DWI. The exigent circumstances exception was also at the heart of Birchfield v. North Dakota and is likely to be an integral part of the Supreme Court's decision in State v. Mitchell, too.