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When does plain view doctrine apply?

On Behalf of | Sep 23, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

The rules of evidence are essential when looking at criminal cases. Without these rules, the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” would have little behind it.

Law enforcement officials cannot search anything they want when they are investigating a crime. There are limits to most searches, including those done with a warrant.

Here’s what you should know about evidence that is in plain view of the person searching.

What is the plain view doctrine?

Search and seizure rules aim to protect your right to privacy. Law enforcement first has to establish by the activity they have seen, or that has been reported that a crime took place. In most cases, if officials want to look for more evidence, they need a warrant that dictates where they can search and what type of evidence they are looking for.

The plain view doctrine extends what is included in a search to items in plain view of the person searching. For example, an officer may see drug paraphernalia on the passenger seat during a routine traffic stop. This would likely fit within the plain view doctrine and turn the traffic stop into a drug investigation.

Searching for fraud

In a recent federal fraud case, the defendant’s administrative assistant, Stafford Garbutt, attempted to become an informant to the FBI after observing his boss and coworkers engaged in wire fraud. After writing letters and contacting the Bureau, an agent gave the assistant directions to conduct warrantless searches of their coworker’s offices.

During the searches, Garbutt discovered several pieces of evidence that would later be part of the trial. However, since there was no warrant, much of the evidence was not permitted at trial. The court also found that the plain view doctrine did not apply since the search was already illegal.

During the stop

It is essential to remember that you do not always have to agree to a search. Keep in mind, if you consent to a search, the officer no longer needs to demonstrate cause or obtain a warrant.

There are limited times when an officer can search you or your property without a warrant. If an officer is simply asking if they can perform a search, you can politely decline.