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Texas Appeals Court Clarifies Probable Cause Standard

August 11, 2016 By Jeff King

The Fourth Amendment

One of the great rights we enjoy thanks to the U.S. Constitution is the right to remain free from unreasonable searches and seizures, by the police. This right comes to us from the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, and puts stiff requirements on the police and other state actors before they meddle into the lives of private citizens.

Search Warrants & Probable Cause

One of those requirements, and a protection for us, is that the police seek out and get a warrant before conduct a search of a person’s belongings, or before making an arrest. Now there are exceptions to this general rule, for example if the police witness a person breaking the law, they can simply make an arrest. But in generally they are required to seek a warrant before conducting a search or making an arrest.

We saw this important standard recently upheld by the Supreme Court in Birchfield v. North Dakota. In that case the High Court made it clear that the police are required to get a warrant before taking a blood sample in connection with a DWI investigation. But before that warrant process takes place, and before the police make an arrest, they must have probable cause to believe that the suspect committed a crime. Otherwise the entire arrest and evidence collected during and after could be invalidated by a judge.

Appeals Court Rules on Probable Cause

In Texas an appellate court recently handed down a ruling that clarifies what the probable cause standard is, and when it applies in an interesting way. In that case, State v. DeFranco, a man was seen by a reserve officer driving over the speed limit. As part of his duty, the police officer pulled the man over to give him a ticket. But soon after doing so he realized the man may have been drunk while driving, and so began a DWI investigation.

During the investigation, the police officer asked for the usual documents – license, proof of insurance, registration. But as it turned out the registration was expired and the plates being used by the driver were not valid. Given the fact the man was being investigated for DWI, however, these were secondary issues. In the end, the police officer concluded there was enough evidence to arrest the man for DWI, and so arrested him and took him to the station.

It is this point in the story where the case gets interesting. After the trial court judge heard all of this evidence, he concluded that there was not enough evidence to show probable cause that the driver was drunk while driving, and so dismissed the case. But the state appealed to the appellate court arguing that while there may not have been enough evidence to show probable cause for an arrest, the fact that his license plates were invalid gave the police officer enough reason to make the arrest, even though that is not why he arrested him. And the appeals court agreed!

Police Officer Intent Does Not Matter

The big takeaway from this case is that police officer’s idea of probable cause does not matter, as long as looking back to the moment in time there was was probable cause of some crime committed. In this case, it was the fact that the man’s license plates were invalid (an arrestable offense in Texas). Of course, this puts the police and prosecution at an advantage in any case where the probable cause standard is challenged by a defense team, but that is the state of the law.

If you are accused of DWI, or any other crime in Texas, you need the right defense team to aggressively defend your rights. Jeff King, criminal defense lawyer in Dallas, has the experience and expertise that your case deserves, and will put forward your best defense. Contact us today and we will give you an evaluation of your case and options.

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