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The Fourth Amendment and the plain view doctrine

November 14, 2018


The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects you from unreasonable search and seizure activities.

In addition, the Supreme Court has issued a ruling about the “plain view doctrine.” What is this and what does it mean to you?

First things first

An example of unreasonable search and seizure is when a law enforcement officer enters a home without the owner’s permission. The officer does not have a warrant or a court-ordered warrant exception, and yet he confiscates some drugs that are sitting on the windowsill in the kitchen. He intends to charge the homeowners with a criminal offense and will use the drugs as evidence.

Foiled by the plain view doctrine

As defined by the Supreme Court, the plain view doctrine would prompt a different outcome. In walking past the home, the policeman sees the drugs, which is in plain view in the kitchen window. However, by entering the home without your permission and seizing the drugs, the officer realizes he would be in violation of the plain view doctrine and thus the homeowner’s Fourth Amendment rights. According to the Supreme Court, this doctrine contains two elements. First, the item—in this case, the drugs—must be in plain view and “its incriminating character must also be immediately apparent.” Second, the officer must possess “lawful right of access” to the item itself.

How the Fourth Amendment works

The Fourth Amendment speaks to three kinds of activity: searches, or invasions of privacy; seizures of the person, meaning arrests or detentions; and seizures of property, such as the drugs in the example. The lawfulness of the search, arrest or detention may be of more importance than the act of seizing the property. If you face charges as the result of unreasonable search and seizure activities, the plain view doctrine could surface. The court could find there was a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights and dismiss the charges.

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