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What does it mean when police see something “in plain view?”

On Behalf of | Dec 8, 2022 | Criminal Defense |

Most people know that police can’t typically come into your home without permission, start going through drawers, closets and cabinets and taking things they believe are evidence of a crime. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” 

There are some exceptions to the Fourth Amendment protections and the requirement that law enforcement officers have a search warrant signed by a judge stating what areas can be searched and what can be taken. One that everyone should be aware of is the “plain view doctrine.”

What’s necessary for the plain view doctrine to apply?

So when can something in plain view be taken by an officer and used as evidence against a person? There are several key requirements.

A law enforcement officer must have the right to be where they are when they see the evidence. That means they either must have been invited in, have a valid search warrant or have entered due to “exigent circumstances,” such as the reasonable belief that a crime is underway or evidence is being destroyed.

An officer must see the evidence without specifically looking for it. For example, if someone in an apartment lets officers come in and they see what appears to be a bag of drugs sticking out of a backpack on the floor as they walk in, that would be an obvious example. Many cases of “plain view” are murkier.

Finally, an officer must reasonably believe that the item in plain view is evidence of a crime. They typically can’t just take a laptop they see sitting out to see if there’s child pornography on it. If they suspect someone of downloading child porn, a search warrant would likely need to be obtained.

Of course, if you’re the one at the center of a search, it’s natural that you’re too anxious and afraid to fully take in what’s going on. However, if you have been charged with a crime, it’s crucial to ensure that nothing leading up to or during your arrest was a violation of your rights. That’s the reason having experienced legal guidance is wise.