A plain view search and seizure means that law enforcement officials are able to take property without requiring a warrant first as long as it can be seen clearly. Plain view search and seizure is a very limited power that has been contested repeatedly in court cases around the country. Some existing case-law has both expanded and narrowed the scope of these types of searches and seizures. You should understand some of the conditions that allow for a plain view search and seizure.
What Defines Plain View
The first thing to understand is what the term plain view actually means. Plain view was originally intended to mean an object that an officer can clearly see without obstruction while performing another job duty. An example is seeing an open bottle of liquor on the passenger seat of a car during a traffic stop. Plain view does not apply if an item is somehow hidden or covered. Something in a closed bag or something under a blanket is not necessarily in plain view although there are exceptions. If the officer has to move anything to see the object better, then it is not in plain view. Similarly, the object is not in plain view if the officer has to take some unreasonable action to see it.
Limiting Factors for Police Officers
Police officers need to meet certain basic requirements in order to perform a plain view search and seizure. The first condition is that officers need to have a legal right to be in the location where the item is spotted. This means that a plain view search and seizure is not lawful if the officer has entered a building without cause or has stopped a driver for no reason. The next requirement is that the officer must have legal access to the item in question. This can become a problem in certain situations where the object can only be seized from a location with a warrant. Plain view can be used as the basis for securing a warrant to take the item.
Another condition is that the object in question must be immediately recognizable as something related to a crime or criminal action. Examples of items that are immediately recognizable are weapons and some types of drugs. A piece of clothing in the back seat is not immediately recognizable as contraband or evidence of a crime under most circumstances. If an officer attempts to seize items that are not recognizable as being part of a crime, then the search and seizure could be thrown out of court later.
The Importance of Probable Cause
A final element is that the officer must have probable cause to make the plain view search and seizure. Probable cause means that the law enforcement official must have a reason to think that some object is part of a crime or criminal activity. Normal items or a pocketknife that appear in a car when a person is stopped for a minor traffic violation cannot be seized because there is no probable cause. Whether there was sufficient probable cause to make a plain view search and seizure is often argued during trial.