Texas Appellate Court Rules that Police Officer Did Not Violate Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights by Shining a Flashlight into His Car

An encounter with a deputy sheriff in a west Houston driveway led to a conviction for felony drug possession. The defendant argued on appeal that the deputy lacked any reasonable suspicion to justify detaining him, and that the trial court should have suppressed the evidence under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The appellate court disagreed, holding in King v. Texas that the deputy’s use of his patrol car spotlight was justified under the circumstances, and that the mere use of a spotlight did not raise Fourth Amendment issues. The court denied the defendant’s appeal and upheld his sentence.

Harris County Deputy Ronnie Morrison encountered Vaughn Terrell King just after midnight on July 27, 2010. Morrison was patrolling an area of west Houston he described as a “hotspot” for drug activity. He saw the silhouettes of two people in a parked Cadillac that had backed into a driveway. Suspecting criminal activity, Morrison shone his spotlight into the vehicle. He claimed that he saw King in the passenger seat and another man in the driver’s seat. King, Morrison alleged, leaned forward and reached behind him, a movement Morrison associated with attempts to hide illicit materials or to grab a weapon.

Morrison testified that he parked his patrol car in front of the driveway in such a way that the other car could have driven away. He approached the passenger side of the car, holding his flashlight up. King allegedly opened his door when Morrison was about ten feet away, and Morrison claimed he saw smoke and smelled marijuana. King cooperated with a pat-down, during which Morrison said he felt an object he believed was crack cocaine in the back of King’s pants. He later retrieved a bag with thirteen grams of crack.

King moved to suppress the evidence Morrison had obtained, but the trial court denied the motion. King pleaded guilty to felony cocaine possession and received a sentence of seventeen years in state prison. He appealed the denial of the motion to suppress.

The sole question before the Court of Appeals was whether the trial court erred in ruling that Morrison and King were initially involved in a “casual encounter.” The court identified three levels of interactions between law enforcement and citizens: casual encounters, investigative detentions, and arrests. Encounters are not subject to any particular constitutional restrictions, while a detention requires reasonable suspicion of illegal activity and an arrest requires probable cause or a warrant.

The initial encounter between Morrison and King, the court held, was an “encounter” because Morrison was merely following a hunch that illegal activity was occurring. Furthermore, the court found that King and his companion could have exited the encounter at any time, since Morrison’s car was not blocking them. Morrison, the court noted, had the same right as any citizen to ask King a question, and King had the right not to respond or to walk away. Whether or not King knew he could leave did not was immaterial to the court’s analysis. The encounter only became a “detention” when Morrison saw smoke and smelled marijuana. He then had reasonable suspicion to detain and search King.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Texas Appellate Court Affirms Drug Conviction, Holds that Waiver of Objection to Admissibility of Evidence Also Waives Issue on Appeal: Hopkins v. Texas, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 22, 2012
Use of Unmanned Drones by Law Enforcement Raises Fourth Amendment Concerns, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 5, 2012
U.S. Supreme Court Will Consider Case of Police Detention Related to a Search Warrant, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 14, 2012

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