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Explaining the plain-view doctrine in New York

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, U.S. citizens - including New Yorkers - cannot be subjected to unlawful searches and seizures, including arrests. Criminal defense attorneys rely on the Fourth Amendment as a legal cornerstone when analyzing a defendant's case. They must determine whether law enforcement acted properly when their client or the client's property was searched or seized.

Unless a warrant has been issued, a law enforcement officer cannot typically conduct a search, seize property or arrest a person without, in the language of the Fourth Amendment, "probable cause." However, as always seems to be the case in the law, there are a few exceptions to the probable cause requirement for warrantless searches and seizures. One is known as the plain-view doctrine, which was shaped by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Coolidge v. New Hampshire.

Pursuant to the plain-view doctrine, an officer can seize or examine contraband that is in "plain view" of the officer - but only if three circumstances exist. First, the officer must be in a location where he is legally permitted to be. For example, an officer can't generally enter a home without a warrant, but is perfectly justified to be standing on the side of a public street or road like the Long Island Expressway.

Next, the contraband must be in plain view. To be considered in plain view, an object must be visible without any additional searching or inspection. So, if an officer approaches a vehicle on the L.I.E. and sees, through a window, drug paraphernalia lying on the back seat, the contraband is considered to be in plain view. On the other hand, if the drug paraphernalia were in the glove compartment, it would not be in plain view.

Finally, the object's incriminating nature must be "immediately apparent." So, drug paraphernalia on the back seat would have an immediately apparent incriminating nature. No additional inspection is necessary. However, if the paraphernalia were inside a sealed cardboard box on the back seat, only the box would be in plain view and the incriminating nature of its contents would not be apparent without further inspection. Therefore, the plain-view exception would not apply. In order to search the contents of the box, the officer would need to find some other form of probable cause, identify another exception to the Fourth Amendment or get a search warrant.

Source: FindLaw.com, "Annotation 4 - Fourth Amendment," accessed May 16, 2018

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Lerner & Lerner, P.C.

Former prosecutors with more than 50 years of combined experience

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