plain view doctrine

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Plain view doctrine is a rule of criminal procedure which allows an officer to seize evidence of a crime without a warrant when the evidence is clearly visible. This doctrine acts as an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s right to be free from searches without a warrant. Also referred to as clear-view doctrine or plain sight rule. 

Courts have imposed requirements for an officer’s seizure of evidence without a warrant to be valid. For one, as the U.S. Supreme Court in Collins v. Virginia explains, the officer seizing the evidence must have a lawful right to access or observe the seized object. That is, if the officer violated the Fourth Amendment or another law in arriving at the location or situation where they had access or sight to the object, then the plain view doctrine does not apply. However, as the U.S. Supreme Court in Horton v. California clarified, the discovery of the evidence in reliance on the plain view doctrine does not need to be inadvertent. That is, officers can intentionally situate themselves where they believe they will observe a crime or find evidence and may obtain evidence without a warrant if the evidence is found in plain sight (provided, of course, that the officers did not violate any laws in situating themselves). In Horton v. California, the officer had a warrant to enter a robber’s home and seize property stolen through an armed robbery. The officer did not find the stolen goods but found the weapons that he suspected the robber used in the robbery in plain sight, and properly seized them under the plain view doctrine even though he did not have a warrant for the weapons. As another example, in the U.S. Supreme Court case INS v. Delgado, immigration enforcement officers entered a factory pursuant to consent and had consent-based encounters with the employees, which meant that they lawfully situated themselves. 

[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]