Plain View Searches
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Somewhat similar in rationale is the rule that objects falling in the “plain view” of an officer who has a right to be in the position to have that view are subject to seizure without a warrant1 or that, if the officer needs a warrant or probable cause to search and seize, his lawful observation will provide grounds therefor.2 The plain view doctrine is limited, however, by the probable cause requirement: officers must have probable cause to believe that items in plain view are contraband before they may search or seize them.3
The Court has analogized from the plain view doctrine to hold that, once officers have lawfully observed contraband, “the owner’s privacy interest in that item is lost,” and officers may reseal a container, trace its path through a controlled delivery, and seize and reopen the container without a warrant.4
- Washington v. Chrisman, 455 U.S. 1 (1982) (officer lawfully in dorm room may seize marijuana seeds and pipe in open view); United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976) ( “plain view” justification for officers to enter home to arrest after observing defendant standing in open doorway); Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234 (1968) (officer who opened door of impounded automobile and saw evidence in plain view properly seized it); Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23 (1963) (officers entered premises without warrant to make arrest because of exigent circumstances seized evidence in plain sight). Cf. Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 464–73 (1971), and id. at 510 (Justice White dissenting). Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990) (items seized in plain view during protective sweep of home incident to arrest); Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730 (1983) (contraband on car seat in plain view of officer who had stopped car and asked for driver’s license); New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986) (evidence seen while looking for vehicle identification number). There is no requirement that the discovery of evidence in plain view must be “inadvertent.” See Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990) (in spite of Amendment’s particularity requirement, officers with warrant to search for proceeds of robbery may seize weapons of robbery in plain view).
- Steele v. United States, 267 U.S. 498 (1925) (officers observed contraband in view through open doorway; had probable cause to procure warrant). Cf. Taylor v. United States, 286 U.S. 1 (1932) (officers observed contraband in plain view in garage, warrantless entry to seize was unconstitutional).
- Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987) (police lawfully in apartment to investigate shooting lacked probable cause to inspect expensive stereo equipment to record serial numbers).
- Illinois v. Andreas, 463 U.S. 765, 771 (1983) (locker customs agents had opened, and which was subsequently traced). Accord, United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984) (inspection of package opened by private freight carrier who notified drug agents).
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