Most people know that law enforcement officers typically can’t just come into your home or other property, start looking through your belongings and take anything they find suspicious. Thanks to the Fourth Amendment, they typically need a search warrant signed by a judge that was obtained based on “probable cause” that they’ll find evidence of a crime there.
The search warrant details what areas can be searched and what types of items can be seized. Some warrants are more specific than others. However, in some cases, officers can take other items as well – for example, those in “plain view.” Just what does that mean?
When can items in plain view be taken?
Three key requirements must be met for an item to be considered in plain view and for it to be admissible as evidence under that doctrine:
- Inadvertence: It must be visible without someone having to actively look for it. For example, this could be something sitting out on a table in your entryway that officers see immediately as they enter your home.
- Probable cause: Officers need to have a reasonable belief that the item is tied to a crime. An obvious example would be something that looks like illegal drugs (whether they are or not).
- Prior valid entry: An officer must have entered either because they have a search warrant, because they were invited in or due to “exigent circumstances,” which is when an officer has reason to believe someone is in immediate danger or is destroying evidence of a crime. Valid entry, according to the S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is the “absolute prerequisite for plain view.”
Police can also search your car without first obtaining a warrant as long as they have a “reasonable belief” that evidence of a crime is inside.
Naturally, if police are searching your property, you may be too startled or nervous to determine whether they’re doing everything correctly or not. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help ensure that your rights were not violated and that no evidence is used against you that wasn’t legally obtained.