Plain View Doctrine Significance, Elements, and Policy

The Plain View Doctrine is an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent general searches.  As a result, it creates a general rule to the effect that searches and seizures demand a warrant describing the places to be searched and the evidence to be seized with a certain degree of specificity.  The warrant requirement, however, is not absolute.  The United States Supreme Court has held in a variety of cases that there are special circumstances, or factual scenarios, in which the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement does not apply.  The Plain View Doctrine is one such exception.  It is extraordinarily significant in law and criminology because evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment can be suppressed and is therefore inadmissible against a defendant in a criminal case.  It is therefore law the police and the prosecution that seek to establish the elements of the Plain View Doctrine to avoid a defendants motion for suppression, thereby being allowed to present the evidence or contraband seized in plain view at trial and the burden of proof is on the prosecution.   The burden of proof is on the prosecution because the Supreme Court has consistently stated that warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable (Horton v. California, 1990, p. 133). The basic standard governing the applicability of this doctrine has recently been restated and affirmed in both in Horton v. California and Minnesota v. Dickerson.

This standard provides that the Fourth Amendment does not apply when certain requirements have been established.  First, the prosecution must establish that the police saw the evidence sought to be admitted while they were in a lawful position.  Police lawfully in a persons house or stopping a car, for instance, are entitled to pursue a plain view argument on the other hand, if a defendant can rebut the police assertion related to being lawfully in position then the exception is unavailable.  Second, the incrimination character of the item must be immediately apparent (Horton v. California, 1990, p. 137).  This emphasizes the plain feature of the doctrine and means that police cannot simply fish for evidence under the pretext that evidence or contraband was found and later discovered to be relevant to a criminal charge or prosecution.  Immediacy is important.  Finally, assuming the police had a legally justifiable type of access to the evidence or contraband, they can make a seizure pursuant to the Plain View Doctrine that does not violate the Fourth Amendment.  The policy rationale underlying this exception is fairly sound the basic notion is that, although people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in various places and circumstances, that The rationale of the plain-view doctrine is that if contraband is left in open view and is observed by a police officer from a lawful vantage point, there has been no invasion of a legitimate expectation of privacy and thus no search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment (Minnesota v. Dickerson, 1993, p. 375).  The Fourth Amendment, designed to protect reasonable spheres of privacy, need not apply when this policy rationale is absent.  Significantly, as the majority noted in the Horton case, the sighting of evidence in plain view no longer needs to be of an accidental or inadvertent nature thus, police can use the Plain View Doctrine offensively as well as defensively so long as the establish the underlying substantive elements.

The Plain View Doctrine is greatly complicated by the fact that it has been applied in cases involving touch or feel as well as sight.  This would seem to contradict the essential nature of the exception, but the policy rationale is consistent and the doctrine has been harmonized with related criminal procedure issues such as Terry searches.  In Minnesota v. Dickerson, for example, the United States Supreme Court held that tactile discoveries of contraband were covered by the Plain View Doctrine so long as the doctrines elements were proven (1993, p. 375).  What emerges from an analysis of these cases is the fact that the policy objectives seem to influence the Supreme Court more than technical distinctions based on sight, touch, or smell.  It might be better, without being facetious, to rename this the Plain Senses Doctrine to better characterize its modern meaning and reach.

In conclusion, the Plain View Doctrine is heavily litigated and extraordinarily important in a criminal context because it can mean the difference between seized evidence being admitted and seized evidence being suppressed or excluded.  The doctrine has been expanded over time, though all cases are heavily dependent on the underlying facts, and the philosophical and policy considerations focus on reasonable expectations related to privacy in a variety of settings.  It seems, given the purpose of the Fourth Amendment, a comparatively wise exception.


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