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Plain View Doctrine

If police officers are lawfully accessing an area when they see contraband or evidence of a crime in “plain view,” they are permitted to immediately seize those items. In what circumstances could this happen? Suppose the police obtain a warrant to search for drugs in a suspect’s home. The police don’t find any drugs during their search, but when they are looking in the suspect’s bureau, they find photographs of underage children engaged in sexual behavior. Because the photographs were discovered in plain view and it would be immediately apparent they were evidence of a crime (possession of child pornography), the police can take custody of the photographs.

Items seized as being in plain view are admissible in court if two elements are met:

  1. The police need to have authority to be in the place where they make the observations of the evidence; and
  2. The police need to immediately appreciate the illegal or evidentiary nature of the evidence.

Authority to be Present

If a police officer observes contraband from an area he should not have entered, the contraband cannot be seized pursuant to the plain view doctrine. For example, if an officer enters a private apartment with no warrant and no other legal justification and, once inside, sees illegal drugs, those drugs will be inadmissible at trial because the cop’s conduct in entering the apartment was illegal. What does it mean for the police to have legal authority to be present? A police officer is lawfully present in the following scenarios:

  • The officer is executing a search warrant;
  • The officer has received consent from a property owner to enter;
  • The officer entered a private location to render emergency aid;
  • The officer knocked on an apartment door from a common hallway and saw contraband inside of the apartment once the door was opened; and
  • The officer lawfully stopped a motor vehicle and then used his flashlight to illuminate the interior of the car.

Recognition of Nature of the Evidence

Obviously, some items are immediately identifiable as illegal. Cocaine, child pornography, and some types of weapons are examples of easily identifiable contraband. When the police seize items that could constitute evidence in a criminal case, the Commonwealth must establish there was an evidentiary relationship or nexus between the items and the crime. Examples are items of clothing that appeared to contain blood stains or gunpowder residue, pornographic videotapes found during the execution of a search warrant related to a child abuse investigation, and personal paperwork of a suspect found during the search of his bedroom in a drug investigation (which could be used to prove the defendant lived in the house). In other words, a police officer cannot seize an item unless it is clearly relevant to a criminal investigation.

The plain view doctrine also applies to pat-frisks and searches of suspects and their clothes. If a police officer lawfully searches a suspect on the street believing he might be armed, the officer can seize any other unrelated contraband found in the suspect’s pockets. The theory behind the plain view doctrine is that while acting in a lawful manner, the police inadvertently and innocently discovered contraband or evidence and those items should be admissible in court. If there is evidence the police acted in bad faith, and that the discovery of the items was not inadvertent, a judge is going to be hard-pressed to admit the evidence under the plain view rule.