When is evidence legally considered to be in “plain view?”

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people from “unreasonable” search and seizure. In most cases, unless they’re given permission to enter, law enforcement officers need a search warrant to look around and take potential evidence from a person’s home or other property. That warrant, which must be based on “probable cause,” outlines what areas they can search and what types of things they can take.

There is an important exception to the Fourth Amendment protections regarding what property a law enforcement officer can seize. That’s the “plain view doctrine.” You probably have some familiarity with that.

Three primary requirements

However, it’s important to know that there are three things required for evidence found in plain view to be used against you. These are the following:

  • Prior valid entry: The officer must have a valid reason for being there (permission to come in or a warrant, with some exceptions that we’ll discuss next.)
  • Inadvertence: The evidence must be out in the open and visible without actively looking for it.
  • Probable cause: Police must have a reasonable belief that something in plain view is evidence of a crime.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “The absolute prerequisite for plain view is valid entry.”

Other Fourth Amendment exceptions

While police typically need a warrant or permission to enter private property, they can legally do so if there are “exigent circumstances.” That generally involves having a reasonable belief that someone is in imminent danger or that someone is destroying evidence.

Things get more complicated when police stop someone in a vehicle. That is where the “motor vehicle exception” comes in. Officers can legally search a vehicle without permission or a warrant if they believe there is evidence of criminal activity inside. Of course, the plain view exception can be used here, too. If an officer pulls someone over and sees what appears to be drugs on the floor, they can seize them.

Of course, if you’re dealing with law enforcement in your home or vehicle, you may be too rattled or things may move too quickly to fully understand the implications of what’s happening. If you’ve been arrested, it is crucial to get legal guidance right away and review what happened so that you can help ensure that your rights weren’t violated. This can make all the difference to your case.

Attorney Brad Hawley

Attorney Brad HawleyAttorney Brad Hawley possesses years of practical experience focused on bankruptcy, civil and criminal defense. He has prosecuted and defended clients in state court, and is a former enlisted member of the United States Army. Brad is driven by his desire to help people that have been hurt by the legal system, and is dedicated to fixing injustices he sees around him. [ Attorney Bio ]

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