Your Civil Rights Are Precious

What you should know about the plain view doctrine

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution places strict prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizures of your property, so if a New York City police officer wants to search your vehicle, the officer must meet specific conditions, such as possessing a search warrant, or if the officer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle possesses incriminating evidence. Additionally, the "plain view" doctrine may also lead to an officer deciding to search your vehicle. It is important to know what this doctrine is and how officers may or may not use it to conduct a search.

Findlaw describes the "plain view" doctrine as the rationale for a police officer to search and seize criminal evidence if the evidence is in plain view. The officer does not require a search warrant if the officer can see the evidence. This doctrine can apply if an officer stops a vehicle for a traffic infraction and then spots a piece of drug paraphernalia in the back seat. The officer can not only seize the paraphernalia but can conduct a search under the reasonable suspicion that other paraphernalia may be present.

If the Court later finds the search was unwarranted and suppresses the evidence -something that happens rarely - it that might result in the dismissal of the case. Even so, someone whose case is dismissed because of an improper search does not have a basis to sue in civil. The fact that you won't be prosecuted is considered enough of a benefit to preclude an action for money damages. 

However, a search undertaken under plain view doctrine does not mean that an officer can search any piece of your property. A search inside a vehicle, for instance, motivated by the sight of an illegal weapon, cannot extend to other property that is too small to reasonably contain a weapon. So if a police officer searches the wallet of the vehicle owner after examining the vehicle, that search is likely to be out of bounds.

The Cornell Law School website also points out that the criminality of the evidence must be obvious to an observer. An officer must be able to spot the incriminating nature of the evidence at face value. Spotting a dangerous weapon through transparent glass is not a problem. However, if the evidence is sealed up in a container, then it is impossible for that evidence to be judged as incriminating based upon sight.

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