Warrantless Searches Reasonable Under the Plain View Doctrine

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico State Constitution protect us against unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that law enforcement are required to first get a search warrant before going into someone‘s house or car to seize evidence. A search warrant is issued by a judge and is a court order that authorizes law enforcement officers to conduct a search of a person or a location for evidence of criminal activity and to seize that evidence.

The U.S Constitution and the New Mexico State Constitution require that searches be reasonable and specific. Therefore, a search warrant must specifically state the exact place and object that may be searched. A warrantless search, therefore, is presumed to be unreasonable. There are, however, a few recognized exceptions that make warrantless searches reasonable and permissible.

These include exigent circumstances, searches incident to arrest, inventory searches, consent, hot pursuit, open field, and plain view. When law enforcement conducts a warrantless search, it is the responsibility of the state to prove that the warrantless search was reasonable. This can be done by proving that the warrantless search fits into one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement listed above.

The Plain View Doctrine

One of the exceptions frequently relied upon by law enforcement when a warrantless search is conducted is what is commonly referred to as the plain view doctrine. This exception allows a police officer to seize something that is illegal or suspicious if it is in the plain view of the officer. Two requirements must be met in order for the plain view exception to apply. First the officer must be legitimately present at the searched location and second, the incriminating nature of the evidence seized must be immediately apparent giving the officer probable cause to believe that the item seized is evidence of a crime.

For example, if a police officer has a warrant to search someone‘s home for a stolen T.V. and while searching the home for the T.V. the police happen to see drugs laying on a coffee table in the living room, the police may seize the drugs under the plain view doctrine. The seizure of the drugs is reasonable and not a Fourth Amendment violation even though the warrant that allowed the police to search the home for the stolen T.V. did not also specifically state that the officer may search the home for drugs.

The plain view doctrine applies because the police were legitimately present at the searched location pursuant to the search warrant for the T.V. and the drugs were in the plain view of the police. In this same scenario, the plain view doctrine would not apply if the drugs were hidden in a drawer of the coffee table instead because they would no longer be in plain view.

If you are facing criminal charges it is wise to discuss your case with an experienced criminal law attorney. A criminal law attorney will review the details of your case with you to determine whether you have been subject to an unlawful search and seizure. If your attorney determines that your Fourth Amendment Rights have been violated he or she can file a motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the unlawful search and seizure.


Related Reading:
4th Amendment and the Plain View Doctrine
Pat-Down Search in New Mexico is a Protective Search for Officer Safety Not a Search for Evidence
The 4th Amendment and Police Questioning Beyond Scope of Traffic Stop in New Mexico

Collins & Collins, P.C.
Albuquerque Attorneys

Share your thoughts