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Martin v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

May 16, 2019

Casey Allen Martin, Appellant
The State of Texas

          On Appeal from Criminal District Court No. 1 Tarrant County, Texas Trial Court No. 1515753D

          Before Kerr, Birdwell, and Bassel, JJ.


          Wade Birdwell, Justice.

         A fire broke out in appellant Casey Allen Martin's apartment, and firefighters entered to battle the blaze. Firefighters saw drug paraphernalia inside, and they called police in to observe the scene. Officers then obtained a search warrant, which led to the discovery of the methamphetamine that was the basis for Martin's conviction.

         In one issue, Martin appeals the denial of his motion to suppress. Martin does not dispute that the fire permitted firefighters to enter the apartment. But he contends that the same exigent circumstances did not also authorize officers to enter and observe, in plain view, the same contraband that firefighters had already seen. Because we disagree, we affirm.

         I. Background

         On August 30, 2017, at approximately 10:47 p.m., the Bedford Fire Department ("BFD") was called to a fire at an apartment complex.[1] Firefighter Darren Cook located the source of the fire as an apartment on the second floor, with smoke and water flowing from the door. Cook contacted the tenant, Martin, who indicated that he fell asleep while cooking on the stove.

         BFD made entry and extinguished a small fire on the cooktop. Cook then began efforts to ventilate the apartment. Cook attempted to open a window in the back bedroom, kneeling on a futon to reach the window, and his knee touched a firearm. Cook became concerned about his safety and the safety of the other firefighters. The firefighters began to look around the apartment and observed other firearms and ammunition scattered throughout the apartment, giving Cook additional safety concerns. Cook also saw multiple items of drug paraphernalia sitting on dressers, tables, and a shelf in an open closet-all in plain view. Cook decided to call the police due to his safety concerns and the drug paraphernalia.

         Officer Hunter Hart of the Bedford Police Department was dispatched to the scene. When Officer Hart arrived, he made contact with the BFD battalion chief. The chief told Officer Hart that BFD could not ventilate the back bedroom of the apartment because there were blankets over the windows and that BFD had located guns and drug paraphernalia inside the apartment. The chief told Officer Hart that he was concerned about the safety of BFD due to what they had observed, and he wanted Officer Hart to secure the apartment.

         Officer Hart went into the apartment and inspected each room, ending with the back bedroom. In the bedroom, he observed drug paraphernalia in plain view. Officer Hart described the paraphernalia as a pipe or bong containing drug residue, a plastic baggie containing drug residue, and additional plastic baggies commonly used to contain narcotics. Based on the items of drug paraphernalia, Officer Hart believed that an offense had been committed, and he "froze" the apartment as a crime scene. Officer Hart exited the apartment approximately two minutes after his initial entry and determined that there was no one inside who could pose a safety risk. BFD remained at the scene while Officer Hart entered and exited the apartment.

         Additional officers went into the apartment to observe the contraband and to determine if they should obtain a search warrant for the apartment. The police did not seize any evidence at that time. The officers talked to Martin, who stated that he was the only one residing in the apartment. Martin was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia.

         Officer Hart then left the scene, and Bedford police obtained a search warrant at 3:12 a.m. on August 31, 2017. In the warrant affidavit, an officer alleged that Cook and BFD had located what they believed to be drug paraphernalia inside the residence. Police executed the search warrant and found the methamphetamine that is the subject of this case.

         After hearing the evidence, the trial court denied suppression and entered findings of fact and conclusions of law. In its conclusions, the trial court stated that the firefighters' entry into the apartment was lawfully related to exigent circumstances: combatting an ongoing fire. The trial court observed that under Supreme Court precedent, the firefighters would have been within their rights to seize the drug paraphernalia that they saw in plain view.

         The trial court also concluded that Officer Hart's entry was justified, though it noted that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had yet to address this issue. The trial court reasoned that firefighters should be permitted to call on officers to secure the scene of a fire and to observe, in plain view, the same evidence that firefighters were entitled to seize. As support, the trial court cited cases from several other jurisdictions, and it noted that "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." The ...

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