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The Plain View Doctrine

Info: 3479 words (14 pages) Law Essay
Published: 7th Aug 2019

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Tags: US Law


The plain view doctrine tolerates law enforcement officers to do their duties by allowing them to seize evidence without a warrant has to be in place as long as it meets the requirements and doesn’t violate the fourth amendment. With this amendment in place, it does not just give the authority the right to violate citizen’s property and look around when they feel to do so. However having probably caused is one of the requirements that must be met when trying to apply the plain view doctrine. If an object is seized without a search warrant will become inadmissible in evidence.  This doctrine does not give authorities the permission to move objects around to get a better view. While conducting this research information it will address the following (1) what is the plain view doctrine (2) what are the plain view requirements and exception to search and seizures (3) explain how the fourth amendment protects individual search warrants and probable cause (4) should the plain view doctrine apply to digital evidence. (5) Touch on how open field ties into plain view when it comes to search and seizer. Should the plain view doctrine be able to seize any evidence that is found without a search warrant? Do officers use the pain view doctrine to conduct unreasonable search and seizures?

When No Search Warrant Is Required

The Criminal Justice System is a system that has been set up to help apprehend, defend, or even punish those who choose to take the law into their own hands by committing criminal offenses.  What is plain view? Plain view doctrine refers to” the concept that so long as criminal evidence or contraband is left out “in plain view “officers conducting a legal search of a property are within their rights to seize that evidence”. (“Plain View Doctrine – Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes,” 2017) Also, this doctrine allows a law enforcement to seize objects not described in a warrant when carrying out a search warrant if the items are left out in plain view and an officer has probable cause to believe that it is linked with other criminal activities.  According to the text” the plain view doctrine allows seizures of objects that either offends the law by their mere presence or are objects that, under the circumstances, appear to constitute criminal evidence”. (Ingram, 2018, p.742)

A large percentage of the arrest that is made by law enforcement is due to the evidence or contraband that the officers may have to stumble across by being in plain view sight. For, an example, in the 1990 case of Horton v California Horton was charged with armed robbery and was convicted. Police believed that they were in the right place and believed that the evidence they were looking for was located in the suspect house. In the search warrant, it specified stated to look for the three rings that were taken during the robbery and didn’t state anything about searching for weapons. At the time no property was found involving the crime but some weapons were discovered in plain view and were seized. (“Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990),” n.d.)

 At trial, even though the police officer testified that he was interested in finding the weapons while he searched Horton’s home, so the weapons were not found “inadvertently.”  The Supreme Court started using this case as an example to help other cases by eliminating any requirements that any evidence that would be discovered to be “inadvertent”.  Horton argued to get the weapons thrown out being that the police had prior knowledge of the weapons being there and that it shouldn’t be admitted under plain view because of how was discovered. At the trial court still allowed the evidence of the weapons to be admitted at trial and Horton was convicted. (“Plain View Doctrine – PoliceLink,” n.d.) The article Plain View Doctrine: Definition & Cases mentions that any contraband that has been collected and seized under the plain view doctrine may be used to convict in a crime (1).The officers must be lawfully present in the area (2). The item must be in plain view (3). The incriminating nature of the item must be immediately apparent to officers. (“Plain View Doctrine: Definition & Cases | Study.com,” n.d.)

While the plain view doctrine allows law enforcement to collect evidence without a warrant there are conditions of the fourth amendment that prohibits law enforcement to feel like as if they’re above the law to take what they want at any time they feel. What is the Fourth Amendment? The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized  (“Fourth Amendment,” 2017) which means law enforcement can’t enter into your home and search through your belonging and take any of your property with doing it the proper way. The Fourth Amendment is important because it addresses the search and seizure law of a person rights. The 4th Amendment on searches and seizures concerns three particular areas (1) Searches (or invasions of one’s privacy) (2) Seizures of a person (an arrest) (3) Seizures of property (“Plain View Doctrine – Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes,” 2017)

 As a citizen, we have the right to having privacy in our daily lives. The expectation of privacy is defined as that is deemed reasonable in public norms. The test determines whether an action by the government has violated an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. (“HESTER v. UNITED STATES,” n.d.). For instance, your personal items should be just that of your belonging such as your purse or things that are in your home. However, any evidence that is left out in plain view for law enforcement to see is considered incriminating on face value and requires no warrant to be in place.

According to the Arizona v. Hicks case, the police enter Hicks home to search for weapons after a bullet fired through the floor of respondent’s apartment injured a man on the floor below. Police didn’t find any other victim’s in Hicks home but ended up discovering other weapons and stolen property. Inside the home, an officer observed expensive stereo equipment and moved it around to obtain the serial number located on the back of it. After checking the serial numbers the officer ended up confiscating the equipment. The policeman’s actions come within the purview of the Fourth Amendment. The mere recording of the serial numbers did not constitute a “seizure” since it did not meaningfully interfere with respondent’s possessory interest in either the numbers or the stereo equipment. (“FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court case and opinions,” n.d.)

However, the moving of the equipment was a “search” separate and apart from the search that was the lawful objective of entering the apartment. The fact that the search uncovered nothing of great personal value to the respondent is irrelevant. The officers didn’t have probable cause they only had their suspicions with no warrant in place it violated his constitutional rights. The “plain view” doctrine does not render the search “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. The Court held that in order for the plain view doctrine to apply, police must establish probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of allegedly stolen equipment. (“FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court case and opinions,” n.d.)

A search warrant is an order issued by a judge that permits police officers to search a particular location and, if evidence is found, to seize that evidence from the property. In order to obtain a search warrant, the police must demonstrate that a crime has been committed and that the items used in connection with the crime are likely to be found in that particular location. In order for a search warrant to be valid, it must meet four basic requirements: (1) it must be requested in good faith by a police officer. (2) It must be based on dependable information that shows there is probable cause to perform a search. (3) It must be issued by a non-biased judge who is not connected to the case in any way. (4) It must specifically state the place that is to be searched, and the items that are to be seized from the premises. (“Plain View Doctrine – Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes,” 2017)

The Supreme Court spoke on the plain view doctrine in Coolidge v. New Hampshire. On January 28, 1964, police came to Coolidge resident to question him about a murder. While cooperating with the police he agreed to take a lie detector test and showed that he did have three guns in his possession. Meanwhile checking on Mr. Coolidge story they questioned his wife and she actually showed them four guns and she allowed and offered them to take out of her home Coolidge wife also gave them his clothing. Coolidge was later arrested and a search warrant for his car. (“Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971),” n.d.)

A warrant to search petitioner’s automobile was applied for by the police chief and issued by the Attorney General (who had assumed charge of the investigation and was later the chief prosecutor at the trial), acting as a justice of the peace. The held that (1). The warrant for the search and seizure of petitioner’s automobile did not satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth because it was not issued by a “neutral and detached magistrate.” (2). the basic constitutional rule is that. (“Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971),” n.d.) Therefore say you’re driving and you get pulled over by a police officer upon walking up to your car the officer notice the barrow of a gun sticking out of the seat and spots a small amount of marijuana laying on the passenger seat. On the other hand, if it’s not in plain view the officer cannot search your car due there not being a justifiable reason to do so.

In other words, we all have rights and privacy and this is how probable cause enters into play. Probable cause is a requirement found in the Fourth Amendment that must usually be met before police make an arrest, conduct a search, or receive a warrant. When believing that a crime has been committed the courts will go ahead an issue out a warrant when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed. For an example, if an officer has a search warrant to look for stolen property and while doing so he discovers the marijuana growing in the garage they can seize the illegal drugs as well. Looking into the Ensor v. State was a case back in 1977 were two friends were pulled over by two plainclothes policemen in an unmarked cruiser. While operating the vehicle driver failed to turn on his headlights.

As the officer identified themselves they were asked to exit the car the officer walked towards the car and while shinning their flashlights into the car. One officer spotted a portion of a white object protruding from under the left side of the passenger floor mat.  The officer determined the object to be a derringer pistol at that point; the officer entered the vehicle and retrieved the weapon. During his subsequent prosecution, petitioner moved to suppress the gun as being illegally seized without a warrant. The state responded that the weapon was in “plain view” and therefore properly seized. (“Ensor v. State,” n.d.)

On the other hand, let’s talk about the plain smell, feel, shape, and hearing instead. The plain smell doctrine is “a doctrine of common sense”; police officers cannot reasonably be expected to avert their senses from the evidence of criminal activity that could be observed by any vigilant member of the public. The plain smell in many jurisdictions allows the evidence in plain smell may be detected without a warrant. Courts have ruled that the odor of contraband gives officers probable cause to perform a search. Police know that if they pull a vehicle over and they smell the odor of marijuana it gives them probable cause.

Some officers may go as far as telling a lie just to search your car but knowing your rights and you know that you don’t have anything to hide but you don’t have consent to any searches. Often police officers will test you to make you uncomfortable just to see how you react to the situation police only need probable cause to legally search your vehicle. Probable cause once again means police must have some facts or evidence to believe you’re involved in criminal activity. Examples: “plain feel of rocks of cocaine during lawful pat-down of clothing (Minnesota v. Dickerson); the plain smell of marijuana odor emanating from a package (U.S. v. Place); plain shape of a gun case (Henry v. U.S.); and plain hearing of incriminating conversations (Hoffa v. U.S.)”. (Rutledge, 2006) When looking beyond the concepts of smell, feel, shape, and hearing crossing over the world technology such as digital property and information such as phones, cameras, and computers are used as evidence? (“so-called plain-view doctrine | Casetext Search,” n.d.)

Technology is science or knowledge put into practical use to solve problems or invent useful tools. Overall it has come a long way in which we all use it to help us in everyday life. It has been major shifts in the way we use it millions of people are on computers daily receiving, and sending emails all day or on some type of electronic devices. Even law enforcement relies on the information that they receive from the digital evidence for important information about both victims and suspects. How would you feel if your mother or even your significant other gives law enforcement permission to search your computer or even worse they take it upon themselves to do so?

According to the article, “Plain View Doctrine in Digital Evidence Cases—A Common Sense Approach” author Larry E. Daniel describes how the use of plain view doctrine for digital evidence with a computer and other should be eliminated. Because “the issue with the plain view in computer searches is a misunderstanding of what a computer search is versus a forensic examination of a computer hard drive.” (“Plain View Doctrine in Digital Evidence Cases ‘A Common Sense Approach,” 2016) Looking at the case United States v Carey was a case where Mr. Carey was being investigated from drug possession. While being watched by the police for quite some time police obtained a warrant for his arrest and at the time other items were observed in plain view. After being arrest Carey consented for officers to search his home and there two computer was removed from Carey homes along with other drugs.

Officers downloaded the information from Carey computer on to a floppy disk that wasn’t a lead that would point them in the right direction to evidence of drug dealing. However, the information leads them to approximately two hundred forty-four image files of child pornography. Find Law.com (2018) Have you ever noticed while you’re driving and see a sign that may say no trespassing or keep out? Although we all know that trespassing is an unlawful entry and those that have this sign in place most likely wants those who are not authorized to be there to stay out. People that trespass might be arrest and go to jail but however, the fourth amendment protects people, rather than places.

Which brings me to discuss the open field doctrine, open field doctrine states how “n criminal law to stand for the concept that anything plainly visible to the eye, even if it’s on private property, is subject to a search since it’s not hidden”. (“Open Field Doctrine,” 2015) When it comes to open field doctrine it may include all unoccupied area outside of the curtilage. Therefore it does not violate the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution because the warrantless search of the area is outside of the owner’s property. Curtilage is the open space that surrounds the outer belonging to a dwelling-house.  The curtilage is protected by the fourth amendment because “the supreme court holds that the fourth amendment protects homes and their curtilage from unreasonable searches without a warrant.

But, otherwise, government agents need consent, a warrant, or probable cause of exigent circumstance to enter a home. Looking at the Hester v United States is a case that established the open-fields doctrine. Example Hester was accused of selling moonshine whiskey and was convicted even though he feels that his fourth and fifth amendments were violated. Because there was search warrant in place and the evidence of the jug to be considered as inadmissible and also being that the officers but did not find any whiskey inside the house. The courts held that there was no illegal search and seizure because Hester dropped the container in the field so he was convicted. (“Open Field Doctrine,” 2015)

 To conclude this research information within the Criminal Justice System you must first know that it are made up of three parts (1) laws enforcement which is the police (2) the courts which is the prosecutors and defense lawyers (3) agencies for supervising offenders.  These laws and rules are put into place for everyone to follow including law enforcement. When it comes to search and seizure or even obtaining a search warrant the plain view and open field doctrines have been able to help provide law enforcement. With making an arrest by seizing the contraband or other objects without a warrant being in place as long as law enforcement is following the requirements and not violating the fourth amendment.


  • Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/403/443/
  • Ensor v. State. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://law.justia.com/cases/florida/supreme-court/1981/57817-0.html
  • FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court case and opinions. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/480/321.html
  • FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court case and opinions. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/480/321.html
  • Fourth Amendment. (2017, June 4). Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fourth_amendment
  • HESTER v. UNITED STATES. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/265/57
  • Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/496/128
  • Ingram, J. L. (2018). Criminal Evidence 13th edition (13th ed.). New York, NY.
  • Open Field Doctrine. (2015, June 8). Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/open_field_doctrine
  • Plain View Doctrine – Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes. (2017, July 14). Retrieved from https://legaldictionary.net/plain-view-doctrine/
  • Plain View Doctrine – PoliceLink. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://policelink.monster.com/training/articles/2043-plain-view-doctrine-
  • Plain View Doctrine in Digital Evidence Cases’A Common Sense Approach. (2016, June 14). Retrieved from https://www.forensicmag.com/article/2009/10/plain-view-doctrine-digital-evidence-cases%E2%80%94-common-sense-approach
  • Plain View Doctrine: Definition & Cases | Study.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/plain-view-doctrine-definition-cases.html
  • Plain View. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-04/21-plain-view.html
  • Seizing Evidence in Plain View. (2006, March 1). Retrieved from http://www.policemag.com/channel/patrol/articles/2006/03/point-of-law.aspxso-called plain-view doctrine | Casetext Search. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://casetext.com/search?q=so-called%20plain-view%20doctrine&p=1&tab=keyword&jxs=&sort=relevance&type=case&utm_source=google&utm_medium=paidsearch&utm_campaign=api-doctrines&utm_content=multiple&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI3czbwJe03gIVjUsNCh07Iwj6EAMYASAAEgJyOvD_BwE

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