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How should I understand the plain view doctrine?

On Behalf of | Dec 6, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Usually, a police officer needs a warrant to search your property. However, there are a few exceptions, one of which involves a police officer spotting an apparently criminal item inside your home or vehicle. This can lead to a search under the plain view doctrine.

The plain view doctrine is important to understand since there are constitutional limits that restrict its use. It is possible an officer can take things too far when insisting on checking your property.

Probable cause is necessary

FindLaw explains that an officer must have probable cause to believe an item has an incriminating nature. A law enforcement official is more likely to have justification if the material item is drug paraphernalia or an illegal substance. However, an item that does not have an apparent criminal use might throw the legality of the search into question.

The officer should clearly perceive the item

Law enforcement could violate the boundaries of the plain view doctrine by taking extra steps to view an item inside of a home or vehicle. In other words, the officer should be able to clearly view the item through a transparent medium such as a window. However, if the item is inside a thermos or a box, the officer cannot see it. Insisting on a search could prove unconstitutional.

In addition, an officer might not have the legal right to use a telescope or other vision-enhancing equipment to examine the inside of your property without a warrant. These and other questions about the legality of a search could become important if the search leads to criminal charges and a trial.