In Texas, a motion to suppress evidence is a request that the court excludes evidence that was obtained illegally. A judge hears and rules on the motion before trial before trial. The court decides whether the evidence was obtained in violation of the defendant's:
- the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against illegal searches or seizures,
- the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination, or
- state or federal law.
If the motion is successful, the evidence will be excluded from introduced at trial. Texas Code of Criminal Procedure 38.23 will apply.
This statute says: “No evidence obtained by an officer or other person in violation of any provisions of the Constitution or laws of the State of Texas, or of the Constitution or laws of the United States of America, shall be admitted in evidence against the accused on the trial of any criminal case.”
1. What is a motion to suppress evidence?
A motion to suppress evidence is a pretrial motion. In the motion, the defense asks the court to exclude certain evidence because it was illegally obtained. By filing the motion, the defendant asks the court to apply the exclusionary rule to keep the evidence out.
The motion can help people who have been accused of a crime. By excluding evidence, a successful motion can undermine the prosecutor's case.
2. What kind of evidence can be suppressed?
Any type of evidence can be suppressed. However, the motion is often used to target 3 types of evidence that has been obtained illegally:
- physical evidence,
- confessions, and
Physical evidence of a crime can be the subject of a motion to suppress. This can come in the form of:
- a murder weapon,
- tools used to commit a crime,
- a car or vehicle,
- stolen property,
- alcohol-laden breath or blood,
- pictures, or
- video or audio recordings.
If any of these types of evidence was obtained in violation of someone's civil rights, it can be suppressed.
Example: A police officer enters a college dorm room without a warrant. He opens a drawer and finds illegal drugs.1
Confessions of guilt are often used as evidence in a criminal trial. They can be kept out of court with a motion to suppress if they were illegally obtained. Confessions can be illegal if they are coerced or involuntarily given.
Example: Steve admits to killing his 2-year-old after a police officer threatens to “pull his head off” if he does not confess.2
Identifications can also be excluded by way of a suppression motion. This evidence constitutes a witness identifying someone as the perpetrator. They can happen in the courtroom or outside of it. They often happen in the police station, frequently in a lineup or using a photo array.
If the lineup or photo array was suggestive, it can coerce the identification. Coerced identifications are illegally obtained.
Example: Police ask a witness to pick a murder suspect out of a lineup. The police only let the witness look at one photo. The witness says the man in the photo is the murderer.3
3. How is evidence obtained illegally?
Evidence can be obtained illegally whenever the investigation violated the defendant's civil rights. Those rights can come from:
- federal law,
- Texas search and seizure law, and
- the U.S. Constitution.
Some of the most important civil rights come from the Fourth Amendment. This Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches or seizures by police. If police find evidence during an unreasonable search or seizure, it is illegally obtained.
Example: Police burst into a home to search for evidence of a drug crime. They do not have a search warrant, and no exception to the warrant requirement applies.
4. When is the motion filed?
A motion to suppress evidence can be filed anytime before trial.
A special hearing before the judge, called the suppression hearing, will be scheduled.
5. What happens during a suppression hearing?
At the suppression hearing, the defense lawyer will argue why the evidence should be suppressed. The prosecutor will argue why it should be allowed in court. Evidence can be presented and witnesses can be called.
6. What happens if the evidence is suppressed?
If the defense lawyer persuades the judge to grant the suppression motion, the judge will apply the exclusionary rule. The evidence will be kept out of court. The prosecutor will be kept from using it at the trial.
If the suppressed evidence was crucial, it can doom the prosecutor's case. Without the evidence, it may be impossible to prove an element of the crime. They may have to dismiss the case, entirely.
7. What is the exclusionary rule?
The exclusionary rule is the penalty for police overreach. When police violate someone's civil rights and find evidence, the rule forbids them from using that evidence.
When police gather evidence, they have to respect a suspect's civil rights. Those rights can come from:
- federal law,
- Texas state law, and
- the U.S. Constitution.
In many investigations, police violate someone's civil rights while unearthing evidence of a crime. The consequence of doing so is suppression of the evidence. The state will not be allowed to use it against the defendant.