The Constitution places many limits on the government and law enforcement to make arrests, seize property, and search people and their possessions when they are accused of committing a crime. As with most things, there are exceptions to this protection.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. Perhaps the greatest exception to this is the “plain view” doctrine.
What is the Plain View Doctrine?
Under the plain view doctrine or the plain view seizure, law enforcement is allowed to seize evidence of a crime without a search warranty if the evidence is within the officer’s plain view. As an example, if an officer pulls someone over for speeding and sees a baggie with what appears to be drugs in the backseat, the officer can seize the evidence. The officer can also proceed with a warrantless search of the vehicle for other drug-related evidence after finding the baggie as the evidence in plain view provided probable cause to search for additional incriminating evidence.
This does not give the officer the right to search the vehicle indiscriminately. If an illegal weapon is found in plain view in the car and the officer finds a packet of drugs in a passenger’s wallet, the officer will most likely be found to have overstepped the boundaries of the law.
When is a Plain View Search and Seizure Legal?
Under plain view search and seizure, the following must take place for the search and seizure to be lawful:
- Law enforcement had a legal right to be where the evidence was seen. This means an officer can conduct a lawful warrantless search and seizure if he sees marijuana plants growing in your backyard while he is standing on the sidewalk, but not if he trespassed onto your property before he saw the evidence. As another example, a defendant may exit the car and express their desire to return to turn off the lights and close the door. The officer has the legal right to do so in the defendant’s place for safety reasons but if the officer then sees contraband while doing so, he has a right to be in the position from which he sees the evidence.
- Law enforcement can legally access the evidence. Law enforcement must be able to plainly see the object and have probable cause that it’s illegal or connected to a crime. A law enforcement officer cannot move other objects to get better look at the evidence to make this determination. A plain view search and seizure cannot violate the person’s expectation of privacy.
- It can be immediately known whether the evidence is relevant or illegal. This means law enforcement must have probable cause the evidence is either illegal (such as an illegal weapon or drugs) and connected to a crime. If it is, the search that follows must then be within the scope of looking for additional evidence that’s related.
Law enforcement can use a flashlight to see what would otherwise be hidden in darkness and evidence will still be considered in plain view. If the evidence could have been seen plainly in daylight, using a flashlight will not be considered an unreasonable search.
“Plain View” Also Includes Hearing and Smelling
A lawful plain view seizure and search does not only include evidence that a law enforcement officer can see; it also includes evidence that may be heard or smelled. If police officer has a police dog, many jurisdictions uphold that an officer can legally conduct a search without a warrant if the drug-sniffing dog signals it has found drugs. The doctrine also extends to evidence an officer hears after a traffic stop, for example, or while walking down a street.
While the plain view doctrine gives police a broader scope with which to conduct search and seizures, there are still rules that must be followed for the seizure and search to be legal. If you have been charged with a crime in connection with a plain view search and seizure, it’s important to consult with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.