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Plain View Doctrine

Plain View Doctrine


What is the plain view doctrine?

Search and seizure laws in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution apply to the plain view doctrine.  Because of this law, an officer of investigative authority can search and seize evidence without a warrant if located in plain view. 


The officer is legally allowed to seize the evidence if three criteria apply:


·         the officer is legally allowed on the property

·         the object is in plain view

·         the officer immediately knows the evidence is illegal


An officer can exercise the plain view doctrine, for example, if they are on a public street and see a robbery occurring inside a window of a home.  The same applies if the officer pulls someone over and sees paraphernalia in plain sight. 


In order for the evidence to be in plain view, the officer must see object(s) without moving any other objects to get a better view.  For example, an officer cannot move the curtains in an open window to look inside of a home. 


An object is immediately incriminating if it appears stolen or illegal.  Additionally, the object is immediately incriminating if it appears linked to a crime or other evidence of a crime.  For example, a massive amount of credit cards with different names and schedule drugs are immediately incriminating.  All weapons apply to immediate incrimination as well. 


If an object is not in plain view, the officer may still search private property under the plain view doctrine in two cases.  If the officer has probably caused, they can ask to search the property (such as a car) or obtain a search warrant.  The plain view doctrine also applies to plain feel, plain hearing, and plain smell, but state laws vary for the sub doctrines in certain cases. 


Refer to US v. Smith, Arizona v. Hicks, and Horton v. California for important cases involving the plain view doctrine.