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Was that piece of evidence taken by police really in plain view?

On Behalf of | Aug 24, 2022 | Criminal Defense

You’ve probably seen law enforcement officers on TV grab and leave with a piece of evidence they found “in plain view” while talking with a suspect at their home or workplace. Officers generally don’t need a warrant to seize items found in plain view, and the government can typically use such items as evidence to charge someone with a crime

The “plain view doctrine” is one of the exceptions to the protections against unreasonable search and seizure provided by the Fourth Amendment. Another is “exigent circumstances,” which gives law enforcement the right to enter private property if they have a reasonable belief that someone is in imminent danger or that evidence is being destroyed.

When is the plain view exception legally valid?

If an officer takes something that they claim is in plain view, what exactly is required? There are three key requirements for evidence to be legally seized using the plain view exception

The officer must have a legal right to be in the location where they spot the evidence. Generally, this means they have a search warrant allowing them to enter a location or they have been invited in.

The officer must inadvertently spot the evidence in plain view. For example, if you invited them into your home because they said they just have a few questions, they have a right to be there. However, if they start opening drawers without your permission or a warrant and find something, it wasn’t in plain view. If it was sitting out on your hallway table that they passed as they entered, then it was likely in plain view as far as the law is concerned.

The officer must have a reasonable belief that an item is connected to criminal activity or is in itself illegal. An officer can’t just take something with them – perhaps to test for fingerprints – if it’s seemingly innocuous.

If police officers are in your home or office – whether you invited them in or not – it’s normal to be anxious and not to ask too many questions. However, if something supposedly found in plain view is being used against you, it’s crucial to determine whether it was legally obtained. That’s just one of the reasons why it’s wise to seek legal guidance if your property has been searched, whether you were arrested or not.