Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Affidavit that Passes the Smell Test and a Trash Can that Doesn't

Published CCA case: Flores v. State

It all started with an anonymous tip from an informant who stated that he/she had once seen Appellant and his girlfriend in possession of cocaine inside a house in San Marcos. Following up, the police officers search rummaged through the trash outside the house and found an empty package of rolling papers and a baggy that field tested positive for marijuana. Based of this (and the officers' experience in narcotics), the officers executed a probable cause affidavit in support of a warrant to search Appellant's house. The magistrate issued the warrant and officer subsequently found small quantities of marijuana and cocaine inside the home. After losing his motion to suppress the evidence, the jury convicted Appellant and awarded him 12 years confinement.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals (Austin) affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress, holding that while the informant's tip alone did not create probable cause, the two "trash runs," provided a substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed.

On appellant's petition for discretionary review, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, upheld the decision of the lower courts and affirmed the conviction. Looking at the aggregate of the evidence contained in the probable cause affidavit in a non-technical sense, the court reasoned:
The cornerstone of the Fourth Amendment is that a magistrate may not issue a search warrant without first finding “probable cause” that a particular item will be found at a particular location. Probable cause for a search warrant exists if, under the totality of the circumstances presented to the magistrate, there is at least a “fair probability” or “substantial chance” that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found at the specified location.  Probable cause for a search warrant does not require that, more likely than not, the item or items in question will be found at the specified location.  In his determination of whether probable cause exists, the magistrate may interpret the probable cause affidavit in a non-technical, common-sense manner and he may draw reasonable inferences from it.
Using this reasoning, the court went on to list the reasons why the affidavit in this case was sufficient.

Judge Meyers was the lone dissenter, stating:
Finding marijuana stems, seeds, and residue in the trash does not provide probable cause to search the adjacent house for drugs. While remnants of drugs in the trash may indicate that someone possessed drugs in the past, it does not show current possession of drugs and certainly is not an indicator that there will be drugs in the house. Drug residue in the trash is equivalent to someone saying “I used to do drugs,” which may show prior possession, but does not provide probable cause to arrest the person or search their home.  If someone is found with drugs in their car and they park their car in a garage attached to their house, that does not give probable cause to search the house for more drugs.  Even if the drug residue in the trash did provide probable cause to arrest for possession, that still doesn’t give probable cause to search the house for drugs. There must be articulable facts sufficient to believe that there are drugs in the house in order to get a warrant to search the house, and drug residue in a trash can doesn’t rise to that level.
Takeaway - Once your trash is on the curb, it is no longer yours.  Don't put anything in your trash that could land you in jail for 12 years. 

Nancy Reagan Takeaway:  Say NO to Drugs!