The Impact of Meane v. State – Changing the Roadside Search
Brian T. Hobson
On April 15, 2015, Mr. Meane was a passenger in a vehicle traveling east bound on Westheimer Parkway in southwest Houston, Texas. The car was stopped for a traffic violation by an officer with the Houston Police Department. The officers stated that they smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle as they approached. The officers removed Mr. Meane, the driver, and two other passengers from the vehicle. The four men were placed in handcuffs, and sat on the curb next to the vehicle. Officers searched the vehicle for contraband related to the odor of marijuana. Nothing was found in the vehicle. The officers then searched Mr. Meane. They found marijuana in Mr. Meane’s pocket along with two pills that tested positive for heroin. Mr. Meane was charged with possession of a controlled substance weighing between one and four grams. This offense is a third-degree felony with a punishment range of two to ten years in Texas prison.
I filed a motion to suppress the evidence arguing that there was no exception to the warrant requirement which justified the search of Mr. Meane’s pockets. The trial court denied that motion after a hearing with live testimony. The Court of Appeals for the First Judicial District of Texas overturned the trial court’s decision. The Court of Appeals agreed with my argument and found that there was no recognized exception to the warrant requirement which justified the search of Mr. Meane’s pocket.
The First Court of Appeal’s ruling could have a major impact on multiple cases around the state of Texas. Meane v. State, 2017 LEXIS 5976 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2017).
All warrantless searches are presumed unreasonable under the 4th amendment. The State is prohibited from using evidence obtained from unreasonable searches at trial, i.e. the evidence is suppressed from admission. The unreasonable presumption was put into place to show the Supreme Court’s preference for all searches to be conducted after law enforcement obtains a warrant.
The presumption that a warrantless search is unreasonable is overcome if the State can show the search fits within one of the delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement. These exceptions allow law enforcement to conduct warrantless searches under certain fact situations without running afoul of a defendant’s 4th amendment rights. The equation for a lawful warrantless search is probable cause + an exception to the warrant requirement = lawful search. The recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement include: 1) search incident to arrest, 2) voluntary consent, 3) automobile exception, 4) plain view and 5) exigent circumstances. The exigent circumstances recognized in Texas include: 1) providing aid or assistance to persons reasonably believed to need assistance, 2) protecting police officers from persons reasonably believed to be armed and dangerous, and 3) preventing destruction of evidence.
To fully understand your rights, a person must understand all the exceptions to the warrant requirement and how they are used to justify searches in the real world. I will go through each one briefly.
Search Incident to Arrest (lawful arrest + reasonable belief evidence of crime is located in place to be searched)
The search incident to arrest exception is often used to validate a search. If a person is lawfully arrested, law enforcement can go into their pockets incident to that lawful arrest. In addition, if an officer has reason to believe that evidence of that arrest could be in a vehicle following a traffic stop, the officer may search the arrested person’s automobile. No warrant is required in either situation.
For example, if a person is pulled over and the officer notices signs of intoxication, the officer may lawfully arrest that person for the offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI). At that point, the officer does not need a warrant to search the pockets of the person or the vehicle. This is true because the officer can reasonably believe evidence of DWI is present in the vehicle (for example: bottle of liquor or receipt from a local bar).
Voluntary consent is simple. An officer can ask to search your vehicle on any valid traffic stop. If you consent, they do not need a warrant to enter your vehicle. Officers will often ask to search a vehicle based on a hunch that the person is in possession of contraband. If a person denies consent, the officer cannot search the car without meeting a different exception to the warrant requirement.
Automobile Exception (probable cause + contraband inside of a vehicle)
The automobile exception applies when an officer has probable cause to believe that contraband will be found inside of a vehicle. In most areas of a person’s life, probable cause alone will not justify an intrusion without a warrant. An officer can believe you are have marijuana in your pockets, in a duffel bag, or in your home, and the officer will need to obtain a warrant to lawfully conduct the search. However, that base line rule does not apply to a vehicle. The Supreme Court has found that vehicles require special rules because they can quickly transport contraband across county and state lines.
In Mr. Meane’s case, law enforcement was within their power to search the vehicle based on the strong odor of marijuana. The strong odor of marijuana provides probable cause to believe that contraband will be present. Put differently, the equation is complete – strong odor of marijuana (probable cause) + contraband inside a vehicle (vehicle exception to warrant requirement) = lawful search.
If a person is lawfully stopped by law enforcement, the officer can search the vehicle the moment that facts are present such that he can reasonably believe contraband will be found in the vehicle. An odor of narcotics or marijuana is the most common basis for probable cause in a vehicle search.
Plain View (lawful vantage point + apparent contraband)
The plain view doctrine states that an officer may enter a place to obtain contraband if an object is immediately apparent as contraband and they view it from a place that they are legally allowed to be. Put differently, if an officer is standing in a lawful place, and he sees obvious contraband, the officer does not need a warrant to seize the illegal object. For example, if an officer knocks on your door as a part of routine police work, and he sees a bag of cocaine sitting on the coffee table, the officer may enter the home for the limited purpose of retrieving the bag of cocaine. No additional search should be conducted without a warrant.
The Three Prongs of Exigency
The exception of exigency has three different prongs – 1) providing aid or assistance to persons reasonably believed to need assistance, 2) protecting police officers from persons reasonably believed to be armed and dangerous, and 3) preventing destruction of evidence.
The providing aid or assistance section is often referred to as the community care taking function. Let’s say that an officer arrives at a home on a disturbance call. When he arrives, he peers through a window and sees a person laying on the floor in a pool of blood. The officer does not have to obtain a warrant prior to entering the home. Law enforcement can enter the home to aid or assist that person. If they run across a kilo of cocaine in plain view during that assistance, a defendant cannot claim that the search was done in violation of his 4th amendment rights. This rule also applies to a traffic stop. If an officer believes that a person needs medical assistance, a lawful traffic stop can occur prior to the driver violating a traffic law.
Pat Downs and Officer Protection (reasonable belief detainee is presently armed and dangerous)
The protection of police officers prong of exigency is often seen in “pat downs.” This type of limited search is what we see on television when an officer asks a person to turn around and pats their clothes for the presence of weapons. If a person is being detained on a traffic stop, or otherwise, an officer can pat that person down for the presence of weapons if they reasonably believe that the person is currently armed and dangerous. In reality, pat downs are upheld with little or no facts to suggest that a person is currently armed. This limited search is upheld in most fact scenarios to protect law enforcement.
Destruction of Evidence (probable cause + objective facts to indicate a person is destroying, or preparing to destroy, evidence)
The preventing destruction of evidence prong is the exception that was at issue in Meane v. State. If an officer has probable cause to believe that a person is in possession of contraband, they may search that person, or their home, if they have facts to suggest that the person is currently destroying evidence or preparing to do so. Let’s say an officer knocks on a person’s front door. When the door opens, he smells a strong odor of marijuana coming from the home. This would establish probable cause to believe that marijuana is in the home, but there is no exception that allows an officer to enter a home based on probable cause alone. The officer would still need a warrant to enter. That changes if we add the following facts: as he peers inside, he sees a guy running to the bathroom, and seconds later, the toilet flushes. The officer would not have to wait for a warrant to enter the home in that situation. The equation would be met – strong odor of marijuana (probable cause) + facts suggesting a person is currently destroying evidence (exigency exception) = lawful search.
Destruction of Evidence and the Impact of Meane
For many decades, law enforcement has conducted traffic stops in the same manner. They pulled someone over for a traffic violation, obtained probable cause that contraband is in the car through odors or otherwise, and then searched the vehicle and all occupants. These searches have been challenged on the basis that no probable cause existed to search the occupants. The Courts have consistently held that probable cause to search an occupant exists when a person is in a confined area (vehicle) and an odor of marijuana is present. The first part of the equation is met.
What the courts have not been forced to answer, until now, is what exception to the warrant requirement applies to the passengers of a vehicle in that scenario. The second part of the equation has merely been presumed to be present. In Mr. Meane’s case, he was not under arrest, he did not consent to the search, no contraband was in plain view, there was no need for aid or assistance, and the search was not a pat down for weapons (as noted by the officer’s testimony). That leaves only the destruction of evidence exception to justify the search. This is the exception that was the crux of the argument on appeal.
The Courts have held that the destruction of evidence exception only applies when you have objective facts to indicate a person is currently, or preparing to, destroy evidence. There were no facts in the hearing that showed Mr. Meane reached into his pockets, tried to flee from officers, or made any furtive gestures that suggested he was attempting to destroy evidence. By all accounts, Mr. Meane sat on the curb in handcuffs and cooperated with law enforcement. The Court of Appeals made the right decision, and found that no exception applied under the facts of the case. They overturned the denial of the motion to suppress, and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings. The case will likely be dismissed in the trial court within the next few weeks.
The Court’s decision in Meane will present obstacles for law enforcement going forward. It is now required that law enforcement obtain a warrant prior to searching an occupant of a vehicle even if you have probable cause to believe that they possess contraband. The way that searches have been conducted for decades is no longer legal. Law enforcement will have to adjust their tactics accordingly. I suspect that Meane v. State will be the first in a long line of cases where the courts of appeals attempt to balance the right to privacy for defendants and the practical considerations of this decision. The Courts are unlikely to be thrilled about putting a new obstacle on an established police practice, but simultaneously, the law mandates this decision. It should be interesting going forward.
Will officers start arresting traffic violators to use the search incident to arrest exception (you can arrest persons for almost all traffic violations)? Will police reports start containing facts suggesting destruction of evidence? Will the District Attorney’s offices try and argue that passengers in a car fall under the vehicle exception? Only time will tell, but Meane v. State is likely just the beginning.