Plain View Doctrine

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Plain View Doctrine

In the context of searches and seizures, the principle that provides that objects perceptible by an officer who is rightfully in a position to observe them can be seized without a Search Warrant and are admissible as evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court has developed and refined the plain view doctrine over time. In Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 29 L.Ed.2d 564 (1971), the Court ruled that the seizure of two automobiles in plain view during the arrest of the defendant, along with later findings of gunpowder, did not violate the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights (protection against unreasonable Search and Seizure).

The Court also has drawn distinctions between searches and seizures in applying the plain view doctrine. In Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 197 S.Ct. 1149, 94 L.Ed.2d 347 (1987), the Court held that no seizure occurred when a police officer called to the scene of a shooting incident recorded serial numbers of stereo equipment he observed in plain view, and which he believed had been stolen. Nevertheless, the officer's actions in moving the equipment to find the serial numbers constituted a search; the officer had a "reasonable suspicion" that the equipment had been stolen, but it was not supported by Probable Cause.

plain view doctrine

n. the rule that a law enforcement officer may make a search and seizure without obtaining a search warrant if evidence of criminal activity or the product of a crime can be seen without entry or search. Example: a policeman stops a motorist for a minor traffic violation and can see in the car a pistol or a marijuana plant on the back seat, giving him "reasonable cause" to enter the vehicle to make a search. (See: search warrant, search and seizure)