The Plain View Doctrine

Police officers do not need a warrant to search and seize contraband or evidence that is “in plain view” if the officer is where he or she has a right to be when the evidence or contraband is first spotted. For instance, the police may search for and seize marijuana growing outdoors if they first spot the marijuana from an airplane or helicopter, since the marijuana is deemed to be in plain view. Similarly, if an officer walks by a car and spots evidence or contraband through the car window, the plain view doctrine applies and a search may be conducted without a warrant. The same rule would apply if an officer is in your home for other valid reasons and spots drugs on a table or cabinet.

Search Made in Connection With an Arrest

Police officers do not need a warrant to make a search “incident to an arrest.” After an arrest, police officers have the right to protect themselves by searching for weapons and to protect the legal case against the suspect by searching for evidence that the suspect might try to destroy. Assuming that the officer has probable cause to make the arrest in the first place, a search of the person and the person’s surroundings following the arrest is valid, and any evidence uncovered is admissible at trial.

To justify a search as incident to an arrest, a spatial relationship must exist between the arrest and the search. The general rule is that after arrest the police may search a defendant and the area within a defendant’s immediate control. For example, an arresting officer may search not only a suspect’s clothes, but also the suspect’s wallet or purse. If an arrest takes place in a kitchen, the arresting officer can probably search the kitchen, but not the rest of the house. If an arrest takes place outside a house, the arresting officer cannot search the house at all. To conduct a search broader in scope than a defendant and the area within the defendant’s immediate control, an officer would have to obtain a warrant. However, the police may make what’s known as a “protective sweep” following an arrest. When making a protective sweep, police officers can walk through a residence and make a “cursory visual inspection” of places where an accomplice might be hiding. For example, police officers could look under beds and inside closets. To justify making a protective sweep, police officers must have a reasonable belief that a dangerous accomplice might be hiding inside a residence. If a sweep is lawful, the police can lawfully seize contraband or evidence of crime that is in plain view.

Searches of Cars and Their Occupants

Cars may be searched without a warrant whenever the car has been validly stopped and the police have probable cause to believe the car contains contraband or evidence. The reasons why no warrant is required for a car search are:

  • cars are easily moved and may disappear while a warrant is being sought, and
    people driving cars do not have the same expectation of privacy in cars as they do in their homes.
  • If the police have probable cause to search the car, all compartments and packages that may contain the evidence or contraband being searched for are fair game.

While a police officer cannot search a car simply because the car was stopped for a traffic infraction – since routine traffic stops are not arrests that would justify a “search incident to an arrest” – the police can order the driver and any passengers out of the car for safety considerations, even though there is no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing other than the traffic infraction. The police also can “frisk” the occupants for weapons so long as they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the occupants are involved in criminal activity beyond the traffic violation and are reasonably concerned for their safety.

The police are sometimes accused of using technical traffic violations as a pretext for stopping the car for the real reason of conducting a further investigation that often includes a frisk and possible search of the vehicle. Sometimes these types of stops are allegedly based on racial profiling. Whatever the police officer’s motives, however, if the officer had a valid reason to stop the vehicle, even a ticky-tack one like a broken rear taillight, the stop is legal. And, if the initial stop is valid, any lawful frisk, search or arrest that follows the stop is also valid.

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