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Recent Updates from the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals

Chad West Oct. 23, 2017

Opening the Car Door Instead of Rolling Down the Window May Create Reasonable Suspicion During a Traffic Stop

           In Ramirez-Tamayo v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently held that the act of opening a car door during a traffic stop may be enough to create reasonable suspicion. The Court noted that illegal narcotics are often hidden in vehicle door panels, making the windows inoperable. Since the driver in Ramirez-Tamayo v. State was in a rental car and was smoking inside the car (a violation of the terms of use for most rental cars), this also bolstered the police officer’s argument that his reasonable suspicion was valid. Thus, the officer was permitted to detain the driver until a drug dog arrived and the contraband—20 pounds of marijuana—was located.[1]

Guilty Pleas Will Not be Overturned – Even if Charges Concern the Wrong Substance

           In Ex parte Broussard, the Court of Criminal Appeals stated that a guilty plea is still considered to be voluntary, even if a lab later determines that the actual illegal substance was different from the drug that the plea concerned. In Broussard, the defendant was charged with possession of cocaine and pleaded guilty to the charge. After entering the plea, a lab determined that the substance in the defendant’s possession was actually methamphetamine. This called into question the validity of the original plea because the prosecution would not have been able to prove at trial that the defendant was in possession of cocaine as stated in the original charge. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the plea validity and denied habeas relief. The Court reasoned that though the defendant pleaded guilty without knowledge of all the pertinent facts, the plea was still voluntarily entered.[2]

Search Incident to Arrest May be Justified by Discovery of a Different Offense After Arrest

           In State v. Sanchez, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that discovery of drugs on someone’s person after an arrest for a traffic warrant may justify a search of the person’s vehicle as well, even if the vehicle is not within the arrested person’s immediate control. In Sanchez, a routine traffic stop resulted in an arrest of the driver for outstanding warrants that were discovered during the traffic stop. After the arrest, police found drugs on the driver. The officer then returned to the vehicle, performed a search and located additional contraband. Initially, the trial court suppressed the evidence from the vehicle—and the court of appeals affirmed—stating that a search incident to arrest could not be justified by discovery of a different offense after the original arrest. However, the Court reversed, holding that, as long as there is probable cause to arrest for the newly-discovered offense—and the additional search occurs soon after the defendant’s original arrest—an officer may conduct a search incident to arrest “on the basis of an offense discovered after formal arrest for a different crime.”[3]

[1] Ramirez-Tamayo v. State, -- S.W.3d ---, 2017 WL 4159140 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017).

[2] Ex parte Broussard, 517 S.W.3d 814 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017).

[3] State v. Sanchez, No. PD-1037-16 (Tex. Crim. App. Sept. 27, 2017).

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