Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Affirms Finding that Police Lacked Probable Cause to Search Backyard Without Warrant

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed orders suppressing evidence obtained during the search of a backyard in an animal cruelty case. Texas v. Betts, No. PD-1221-12, opinion (Tex. Crim. App., Apr. 17, 2013). The defendant successfully argued that police lacked probable cause for a warrantless search of his aunt’s backyard, and that he had standing to assert Fourth Amendment violations even though he was not the owner of the property where the search occurred. The court also rejected the state’s argument based on the plain view doctrine, and found that it did not properly raise the community caretaking doctrine.

According to the court’s opinion, a county official in Navarro County reported seeing several unrestrained dogs roaming a neighborhood where he had previously reported dogs chained in a backyard. An animal control officer went to the address and reportedly heard a puppy barking. He entered the property and found the puppy stuck under the fence. Once in the backyard, he saw more dogs, all of which appeared malnourished and with no visible food or water to drink. Three police officers, including the police chief, responded to his call for assistance, and they seized thirteen animals from the premises. The officers testified that the dogs were visible from the roadway and were located sixty to seventy yards from the property boundary.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with felony animal cruelty. The court cites Texas Penal Code § 42.09, although the section that deals with nonlivestock animals is actually § 42.092. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the search of the backyard. He testified that his aunt, who owned the property, allowed him to keep his dogs there, that he used to live on the property, and that he went there to care for the dogs daily. The police chief testified that he entered the property without a warrant or consent of the property owner because he reasonably believed the dogs were in “imminent danger.” Id. at 3-4. The trial court granted the motion to suppress, and the court of appeals in Waco affirmed.

The Court of Criminal Appeals addressed three points in the state’s appeal. First, it rejected the state’s argument that the defendant lacked standing to challenge the search, finding that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his aunt’s backyard. While the defendant did not own the property, the court considered other factors in making its decision, such as his aunt’s consent to access the property and keep the dogs there.

The court also rejected the state’s argument that police did not need a warrant because the dogs were visible from the street, commonly known as the plain view doctrine. The plain view doctrine, it noted, allows law enforcement to seize contraband in plain sight, meaning the items seized must be inherently incriminating. Id. at 12. Here, the officers seized dogs, and the court held that the officers’ observations that the dogs were skinny and seemingly in poor health did not authorize the seizure. Finally, the state argued that the community caretaking doctrine justified the search. This doctrine is an exception to the warrant requirement, but the court rejected the argument, noting that the state never brought it up to the trial or appellate court.

Criminal defendants have rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution that police, prosecutors, and courts must respect at all times. Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, has worked as an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor, and for over twenty years he has fought for the rights of west Texas defendants in criminal cases. To schedule a confidential consultation regarding your legal matter, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Appellate Court Limits Law Enforcement’s Ability to Search Computers Seized During Border Inspections, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 19, 2013
Federal Judge Approves Warrantless Hidden Video Surveillance in Drug Case, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 26, 2012
Texas Appellate Court Rules that Police Officer Did Not Violate Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights by Shining a Flashlight into His Car, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 16, 2012

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