Texas Court of Appeals Upholds Police Seizure of Evidence Found By Firefighters

Last week the Texas Court of Appeals ruled that when firefighters discover evidence of a crime at a fire scene and report it to the police, the police may lawfully seize the evidence without violating the Fourth Amendment. The case involved a fire in Bedford, Texas on August 30, 2017.

The Bedford Fire Department responded to a reported fire in an apartment where Casey Allen Martin had fallen asleep while cooking. After extinguishing the fire, firefighters began ventilating the apartment, at which time they discovered firearms and drug paraphernalia on dressers, tables, and shelves.

The police were requested, and Officer Hart responded to the scene. Officer Hart entered the apartment, observed evidence in plan view, and then secured the apartment as a crime scene. Martin was arrested and police obtained a search warrant a few hours later. Using the search warrant police found methamphetamine in addition to the evidence in plain view.

Martin sought to suppress the evidence seized by the police as the product of an illegal, warrantless search by Officer Hart. Martin conceded that the entry by the firefighters was legal due to the exigent circumstances for the fire. However, he argued that Officer’s Hart’s entry could not be justified by any exigency.

The Constitutionality of a warrantless police entry following a lawful entry by firefighters had never been decided in Texas.  In upholding the search as lawful, the trial court stated: “the overwhelming majority of courts that have addressed this issue have concluded that the police may step into the shoes of the firefighter to seize the contraband without first obtaining a warrant.” Martin appealed the trial court’s ruling.

Quoting from the Court of Appeals’ decision:

  • Martin does not dispute that exigent circumstances permitted the firefighters’ entry into the apartment and their efforts to control the fire.
  • But he asserts that the same circumstances did not validate Officer Hart’s entry, especially because the fire was doused before he arrived.
  • Martin submits that despite the testimony regarding firearms, contraband, and the firefighters’ safety concerns, there was no realistic indication that some other form of exigency was afoot, such as an armed confrontation.
  • Martin contends that because any remaining exigency was extinguished with the last flames, the officer’s entry was unlawful. And because the entry was unlawful, Martin reasons, the methamphetamine must be suppressed as the fruit of an illegal search.
  • In response, the State asks us to adopt the rule applied by courts in many other jurisdictions: where a lawful intrusion by a firefighter has already occurred, and the firefighter has already observed contraband in plain view, the invasion of privacy is not increased by allowing an officer to enter the residence and observe or seize the contraband.
  • We will oblige the State’s request. In our view, such a rule is well founded.
  • “Police officers often fill many roles, including paramedic, social worker, and fire investigator.”
  • When those roles overlap the role of criminal investigator, it is not unreasonable to allow officers “to step into the shoes of” the firefighter to observe and to seize the contraband without first obtaining a warrant.
  • Allowing this limited entry by an officer constitutes no greater intrusion upon the defendant’s privacy interest than does a firefighter’s entry.
  • Under such circumstances, it would impose needless inconvenience and danger—to the firefighter, the officer, and the evidence—to require suspension of activity while a warrant is obtained.
  • Firefighters’ efforts are best devoted to fighting fire and sorting the aftermath, which are within their mission and core expertise.
  • When, as here, the presence of firearms and contraband distracts from that mission, firefighters should be permitted to call upon police, whose expertise includes handling firearms and securing contraband.

The court went on to list the courts that have adopted such a rule:

  • State v. Bower, 21 P.3d 491, 496 (Idaho Ct. App. 2001), abrogated in part on other grounds by State v. Islas, No. 45174, 2019 WL 1053379, at (Idaho Ct. App. Mar. 6, 2019);
  • Steigler v. Anderson, 496 F.2d 793, 797-98 (3d Cir. 1974);
  • United States v. Green, 474 F.2d 1385, 1390 (5th Cir. 1973);
  • Mazen v. Seidel, 940 P.2d 923, 927-28 (Ariz. 1997);
  • People v. Harper, 902 P.2d 842, 846 (Colo. 1995);
  • State v. Eady, 733 A.2d 112, 123 (Conn. 1999) (op. on reh’g);
  • Hazelwood v. Commonwealth, 8 S.W.3d 886, 887 (Ky. Ct. App. 1999);
  • Commonwealth v. Person, 560 A.2d 761, 765 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1989);
  • Jones v. Commonwealth, 512 S.E.2d at 168-69; 29 Va. App. 363 (Va.App., 1999)
  • State v. Bell, 737 P.2d 254, 259 (Wash. 1987), abrogated in part on other grounds by Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 110 S. Ct. 2301 (1990).

The court did acknowledge two courts that held a contrary view.

  • United States v. Hoffman, 607 F.2d 280, 283-85 (9th Cir. 1979)
  • State v. Bassett, 982 P.2d 410, 419 (Mont. 1999)

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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