Texas Supreme Court Upholds Police Entry Into Premises At Fire Department’s Request

When a firefighter, in the line of duty, asks law enforcement for a safety check after seeing drug paraphernalia, guns, and flammable liquids in an apartment, is the officer’s entry into the apartment reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and can that officer’s discovery of drug paraphernalia in plain view provide probable cause for a search warrant? The short answer to this question under the specific facts of this case is yes.

So said the Texas Supreme Court in a ruling handed down today. The case involved the Bedford Fire Department, who responded to a relatively minor fire in an apartment complex on August 30, 2017. While on scene personnel observed drugs, drug paraphernalia, and fire arms prompting a request for a police officer from the Bedford Police Department to enter.

That in turn led to the arrest of one Casey Allen Martin. Martin sought to suppress the evidence seized by the police officer as being the product of an illegal search. The trial court denied the request finding the police officer’s entry was legal. The Texas Court of Appeals agreed prompting Martin to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

Quoting from the ruling:

  • We agree with the court of appeals’ ultimate conclusion upholding the trial court’s ruling in this case, but we do so by applying different reasoning. In support of its holding, the court of appeals adopted a rule from other jurisdictions-that when a firefighter observes contraband in plain view during his lawful entry pursuant to exigent circumstances, he may call upon a police officer to enter that dwelling and seize such evidence without a warrant, so long as the exigency is ongoing.
  • The court of appeals applied this rule to these factually-distinct circumstances involving evidence discovered pursuant to a search warrant (as opposed to a seizure of plain-view evidence).
  • It concluded that, because Firefighter Cook was lawfully present in Appellant’s apartment, once he observed drug paraphernalia in plain view, he was permitted to call upon Officer Hart to “step into his shoes” and observe that same evidence for purposes of obtaining a warrant to search Appellant’s apartment.
  • Here, the record reflects, and the trial court found that Firefighter Cook’s primary purpose in calling the Bedford Police Department to the fire scene was to request their assistance with his safety concerns that arose while firefighters worked to ventilate Appellant’s apartment.
  • Under these facts, it was reasonable for Officer Hart to have entered Appellant’s dwelling pursuant to the exigency of the fire and its immediate aftermath, without the need to first secure a warrant.
  • Upon his entry into the apartment, Hart’s discovery of the plain-view evidence shifted his focus from a safety inspection towards a criminal investigation.
  • But this after-the-fact discovery does not undermine the independent safety justification for Hart’s initial entry.
  • Therefore, Officer Hart was lawfully permitted to enter Appellant’s apartment in response to the firefighters’ legitimate safety concerns.
  • Having a lawful justification for being inside Appellant’s apartment, any evidence observed by Hart in plain view during that entry could serve as probable cause to seek a search warrant.
  • Given these circumstances, we need not reach the broader issue addressed by the court of appeals of whether an officer may always “step into the shoes” of a firefighter during the course of an exigency to seize or observe contraband that is in plain view.

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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