Montgomery County Criminal Defense Attorney - Caselaw Summaries - Martin v. State, 620 S.W.3d 749
Can Officer's enter a home without a warrant when there has been a recent fire? YES.
Firefighters responded to a sprinkler alarm at an apartment complex, entered Casey Martin’s smoke and water filled apartment, and put out a fire on his stove. Martin remained outside and said there was nobody else inside the apartment. One of the firefighters saw a torch, plastic baggies, a jar of pills, butane lighters and firearms. The firefighter was worried that the house might blow up because of the drug manufacturing paraphernalia located in the house.
A police officer entered the house and did a protective sweep checking for threats by checking each room. Makes you wonder which agency is the most brave if the police had to clear it for the firefighters first. He saw the same things the firefighter saw. He then had a narcotics officer look as well. The narcotics investigator got a warrant and they searched the house. After executing the search warrant they found methamphetamine and charged Martin with possession of methamphetamine. In a 9-0 opinion the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that the warrantless search of the home was reasonable because of exigent circumstances. The court said that the exigent circumstances were still present even though there were no longer active flames. The Court cited the United States Supreme Court decision in Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 509 (1978), which held that where fire or police officials enter a structure during or in the immediate aftermath of a fire to conduct legitimate duties connected to the original exigency of the fire, no search warrant is required.
The court ruled the initial police officer's search was justified in response to the firefighters’ legitimate safety concerns.
In dicta, the Court assumed that the narcotics investigator's entry was unlawful since the immediate danger had been addressed by the initial officer's entry, however the initial officer and firefighter's observations were more than enough for probable cause in the warrant.
I think the case might have come out differently if less information was seen by the initial officers and firefighters or if a greater amount of time had elapsed between the flames being put out and the officers entry. The court seemed to really hinge the decision on the reasonableness factor of the 4th amendment analysis of exigent circumstances. A closer case would be one where the firefighter's put out the flames and noticed baggies in the kitchen and swisher sweet wrappers cut and emptied but nothing else in addition to a two hour gap between the time of the fire and the police "protective sweep."
Also interesting to note here is the fact that the defendant plead guilty to the charges after a motion to suppress which preserved his right to appeal.
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