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What does it mean for evidence to be in “plain view?”

On Behalf of | Aug 15, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Most people have some familiarity with the “plain view doctrine” from watching TV shows. It’s an exception to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure and the requirement of a search warrant in most situations.

If you’re facing charges based on evidence allegedly found “in plain view” by law enforcement, it’s crucial to understand what is required for that evidence to be used against you.

What is required for the plain view exception?

Typically, three things must apply for the plain view exception to be used:

  • An officer must have a legal right to be where they are when they spot the evidence in plain view.
  • An officer must reasonably believe the evidence is something illegal or connected to a crime.
  • The observation of the evidence in plain view needs to be inadvertent. In other words, they can’t be searching for evidence in an area not covered in a search warrant.

What does all that mean in real-life terms? Say officers enter a home with a search warrant for a particular room. In the hallway leading to that room, they spot illegal drugs on a table. That scenario likely makes the evidence admissible. However, if any one of those three conditions above isn’t met, a person may be able to challenge the admissibility of the evidence.

Other relevant Fourth Amendment exceptions

A couple of other Fourth Amendment exceptions allow evidence to be used even if those conditions weren’t met. For example, while police typically need a warrant or a person’s permission to enter a home, they can enter under “exigent circumstances,” such as if they believe someone is in imminent danger or evidence is being destroyed.

Another is the “motor vehicle exception.” Officers have the right to search a vehicle if they have reason to believe it contains criminal evidence. If an officer pulls over a driver and spots what appears to be a bag of drugs and paraphernalia on the front seat as they’re talking to the driver, that’s plain view. If the officer smells marijuana but doesn’t see any drugs, they would have a reasonable belief that it’s somewhere in the vehicle and can search.

One reason why having legal guidance is crucial if you’re facing criminal charges is to help ensure that no evidence found or confiscated illegally is used against you. This is just one of the many rights you need to protect.