Dallas Court of Appeals Overturns Prohibited Weapon Conviction

Today’s case of the day is Michael Scott Page vs. The State of Texas. It’s a Kaufman County weapons case that was appealed to the 5th Circuit in Dallas.

What happened?

Michael was out on bond (agg assault). While on bond Michael told his neighbor he we was going to blow up the courthouse. Michael’s neighbor called the police and relayed the details of this conversation. Michael’s bond was then declared insufficient (a topic for another post) and an arrest warrant was issued.

The police arrive go to Mr. Page’s house and arrest Michael in the front yard. Michael is carted off to jail and the cops then decide to search the house for weapons. An officer testifies that search is out of concern for the safety of Michael and the public. During this search the officers find a pipe bomb and then decide it’s time to get a warrant. Michael is convicted for possessing an explosive device and sentenced to 4 years TDC.

Michael’s attorney filed a motion to suppress and an appeal is born.

Our issue– Can the cops search Michael’s house without a warrant? Can the pipe bomb be used as evidence against him?

The 4th Amendment isn’t lacking for clarity, no unreasonable searches or warrant issued without probable cause. Here we had no warrant so the State needs a 4th Amendment exception to save this search, and the conviction.

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” Ronald Reagan

Those nine words have turned into no less than two 4th Amendment exceptions; the emergency doctrine and the community care taking function.

From the opinion-

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV; Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 181 (1990); Limon v. State, 340 S.W.3d 753, 756 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011). The entry into a residence by police officers is a “search” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Limon, 340 S.W.3d at 756. A warrantless police entry into a residence is presumed unreasonable unless the entry falls within an exception. Id. at 756; Brimage v. State, 918 S.W.2d 466, 500 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996) (op. on reh’g). Two such exceptions are the emergency aid doctrine and the community caretaking or public servant doctrine. Laney, 117 S.W.3d at 860.

Under the emergency doctrine, the Fourth Amendment does not bar police officers from making warrantless entries and searches when an officer has an immediate, reasonable belief that a person within is in need of immediate aid and the officer must act to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury. Laney, 117 S.W.3d at 861 (quoting Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392 (1978)). This doctrine deals with, but is not limited to, private residences. Id.

The community caretaking function is totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute. Corbin v. State, 85 S.W.3d 272, 276-77 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002). The officer must be primarily motivated by his community caretaking function and must have a reasonable belief that the defendant needs help. Id. at 277. In evaluating whether an officer reasonably believes a person needs help, courts may look to a list of four non-exclusive factors: (1) the nature and level of the distress exhibited by the individual; (2) the location of the individual; (3) whether or not the individual was alone and/or had access to assistance other than that offered by the officer; and (4) to what extent the individual, if not assisted, presented a danger to himself or others.

These altruistic 4th Amendment exceptions are rotten public policy. Given that there are thousands of felonies on the books, it may behoove the public to reject or avoid law enforcement assistance, even in an emergency, lest you end up facing the business end of our state’s criminal justice system.

Holding- The search is no good, conviction reversed.

After reviewing the record, we likewise conclude these facts do not give rise to a legitimate community caretaking function exception to the requirement for a warrant. During the hearing, Phillips testified the sergeant told the officers to “go in the house and get [appellant’s] guns for safekeeping.” Assuming this is sufficient to show the officers were primarily motivated by their community caretaking function, we then consider the second prong of the Corbin test: whether the officers’ beliefs that appellant needed help were reasonable. Because appellant had been removed from the house and was en route to jail before the officers began searching his house, there is clearly no evidence to show appellant was in distress, needed assistance, or presented a danger to himself or others. Applying these factors, we conclude the officers’ exercise of their community caretaking function was not reasonable. The trial court abused its discretion by denying the motion to suppress.

Stopping a potential pipe bomber is a worthy cause, this isn’t just another meaningless dope bust. That doesn’t mean the war on drugs isn’t at fault here. Prohibition poisons everything.

One of the opportunity costs of our failed drug war is that cops don’t have enough time to solve real crime. Imagine if every drug task force was instead focused on illegal weapons. Officers would have the time to thoroughly investigate every potential pipe bomber, gather evidence, and secure a warrant before searching a residence.

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