All Americans are protected against unreasonable search and seizure thanks to the Fourth Amendment, but defining what qualifies as unreasonable is a complex process. That’s where the plain view doctrine comes in -it states that police can search your home or vehicle without a warrant if they see evidence of a crime in plain sight. But the law is confusing, which is why it pays to know the ins and outs of this law in terms of what is and is not considered plain view.
What is the Plain View Doctrine?
Under the plain sight doctrine, police can search your property without a warrant as long as they can see some type of evidence of a crime (often contraband) if they see it during a lawful observation. For example, if a police officer comes to your door to ask you about a missing person and can see someone bound and tied behind you, he can enter your home and investigate further. Even if you refused to answer your door, the officer could take advantage of the doctrine if he could see the victim through a window or an open side door.
Additionally, the police cannot enter your home to investigate or arrest unless there is also an exigent circumstance or an immediate emergency reason for doing so. Typically evidence that can be disposed of quickly or life threatening situations will meet these requirements.
The Complexity of Plain Sight Rules
Like most legal issues, the plain view doctrine is hardly a cut and dry matter. In order for the officer to take advantage of plain sight protections, he must be lawfully present at a location where the evidence can be easily viewed and the incriminating character of the evidence must be immediately apparent. For example, if the police officer spotted a hooka in someone’s home, he would not have legal protections to search the home and seize the object because hookas, while occasionally used for smoking illegal drugs, are often used for smoking tobacco.
The officer cannot move other objects in order to get a better view. When evidence is recovered through the plain view doctrine, it will almost always be questioned by the defendant’s attorney to discover if it was actually legally obtained or not.
It’s important to recognize that many aspects of the plain sight exemption are settled on a case-by-case basis. For example, police cannot search your backyard without a warrant, but if you have a two-foot tall fence that does nothing to conceal a person using cocaine in the yard, police may take advantage of the plain view doctrine. On the other hand, if the fence was eight feet tall, they could not claim that the activity occurred in plain view -unless the slats in the fence were wide enough to let someone see the activity from outside the yard.
As you can imagine, many court cases come down to arguments from the prosecution and the defense as to whether or not something was in plain view. This is why it is critical to always work with a top rated criminal attorney if you have been accused of a crime.
If you have any questions about the plain sight law or believe evidence against you was acquired illegally, please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a consultation with defense lawyer Peter M. Liss.