The United States and Texas Constitutions provide a wide variety of protections for citizens under investigation and accused of offenses. This includes protections for traffic stops or detentions, searches (including searches of homes, automobiles or search warrants), as well as interrogations. Below are some of the most common violations of civil rights and what the usual remedy or consequence is. It is important to remember that the law on searches and seizures and interrogation is vast and fills entire textbooks. The below information is for educational purposes only and you should consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to see what the effect of a potential violation of your civil rights might be.
Common Civil Rights Violations
Traffic Stops and Detentions
The police must have a valid reason to stop and detain a person under Texas and Federal law. In the context of traffic stops, some typical reasons include, swerving, driving without lights, speeding, expired registration, and the so-called “community caretaking function,” which allows officers to briefly detain a person if they believe a person is in distress and in need of help. Sometimes traffic stops are based on “tips” from someone that a driver is intoxicated, or engaged in some type of illegal activity. Anonymous tips alone usually cannot be the basis for a traffic stop. Under Texas and Federal law, it is generally required that a caller make himself accountable by providing his name, phone number and contact information in addition to a specific reason that would justify the traffic stop.
Even if the stop was valid, it is important to know that prolonged detentions, longer than required to investigate a traffic stop, can sometimes make an initially valid stop illegal. For example, if the police stop you for expired registration or speeding, but make you wait an hour while they wait for a drug dog to arrive, that could render the stop illegal.
If you were stopped without a valid reason, or if the nature of length of your stop was legally unreasonable, your attorney may be able to challenge the stop by arguing that it was illegal. If a judge agrees, all of the evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop is not admissible in court, and your case could be dismissed. This is why it is important that a criminal defense lawyer possess an in-depth understanding of the traffic code and of the Constitutional rules that are applicable to traffic stops found in the Texas and United States Constitutions to determine if your civil rights were violated.
Under Texas and Federal law, the general rule is that a search must be done with a warrant. However, most searches are done without warrants because there are many recognized exceptions to the general rule. These exceptions include:
- The Plain View doctrine: Officers may seize contraband that is in “plain view” that is immediately recognizable as something illegal. An issue in these cases is often whether something was immediately recognizable as contraband (and not only considered contraband after police investigation.
- Consent: If a suspect agrees to let the police search, then no warrant is needed. However, consent must be voluntary and not obtained through any type of pressure or coercion. For example, if a suspect in a DWI case agrees to give blood, but he only did so because the officer falsely told him that he would face additional charges for not cooperating, that consent was probably not voluntary.
- Searches incident to arrest: This principle of Constitutional law says that police may search a person who is arrested as a part of the arrest process. This principle is very complicated and questions often arise as to whether a police officer violated a person’s rights. There can often be a question about whether the person was actually under arrest, and the scope of the search.
- Inventory searches: When a person is arrested in a vehicle, the police will generally conduct what is known as an “inventory” search, meaning that they go through the vehicle and take note of everything there. If something illegal is found during the inventory search, it may be a valid search despite the lack of a search warrant.
- Smell of marijuana: If an officer smells marijuana in the car, the law allows him to search the car for marijuana. This is an exception that the police know well and take advantage of (unfortunately, this exception gives dishonest officers an almost sure-fire way to search). A large percentage of drug possession cases involve searches of vehicles where the officer claims to have smelled marijuana. Fortunately, this exception does not generally apply to homes as cars have traditionally been given less Constitutional protection.
Search warrants are used by police for a variety of reasons, including searching homes, computers, telephones and collecting DNA or blood samples. The law on search warrants is very complex but in general, a search warrant must state specifically why the officer (known as the affiant of the search warrant) needs to search and item or collect evidence, why he believes a crime has been committed, and specific reasons why he believes he can obtain evidence by searching the object in question. The police officer who writes the warrant (often with the help of the District Attorney’s Office) must get it signed by a judge. Warrants can be challenged for a variety of reasons, including where they contain false information, do not state the location or items that are sought with specificity, are “stale” (meaning too much time has passed between when they were signed by the judge and when the warrant was executed), and several other reasons. It is critical that a criminal defense lawyer attack the warrant in every possible way. If the warrant is shown to be invalid, it may lead to the suppression of any evidence seized as a result of the warrant.
Miranda Violations & Violations of Request for An Attorney
Often, a person arrested and charged with an offense will complain that he was not read his rights. That is usually a reference to the Miranda case, that states that a person who is arrested for an offense (and not simply detained or speaking with the police voluntarily), must be advised of his right to remain silent, and his right to counsel. If the police arrest a person and question him without his Miranda rights, then a judge may rule that the confession should not be admitted. Similarly, where a suspect makes a clear request for a lawyer, but the police ignore the request and continue questioning him, the statements made after the request may be inadmissible. These are just two of the issues that frequently arise in these areas of the law.
The law of searches and seizures is complex and constantly changing. In order to effectively represent a criminal defendant, a criminal defense lawyer must have a firm understanding of the issues that could be used to challenge the evidence on a Constitutional basis.
Contact Our Houston Civil Rights Attorney
Houston criminal defense attorney Jose Ceja has devoted his career to the practice of criminal law and began his career as a drug prosecutor and prosecuted felony drug cases for three years. Handling thousands of drug cases throughout his career, Mr. Ceja has litigated every issue mentioned above countless times. If you have been arrested and charged with a crime anywhere in the Greater Houston area, Mr. Ceja is a superb choice. Contact us for a free consultation.