Plain View Doctrine

The plain view doctrine allows a police officer to take any evidence of a crime or contraband that is found in plain sight during a normal observation. The police officer does not need a warrant in such a case to collect that evidence. For example, the plain view doctrine is used often during screenings of passengers at U.S. airports by TSA officers, who work for the federal government. To explore this concept, consider the following plain view doctrine definition.

Definition of Plain View Doctrine


  1. The doctrine that holds that any evidence or contraband that is out in plain sight may be seized by a police officer during an observation and without a warrant.

What is the Plain View Doctrine

The plain view doctrine refers to the concept that so long as criminal evidence or contraband is left out “in plain view,” officers conducting a legal search of a property are within their right to seize that evidence. For example, the plain view doctrine gives police officers the right to seize needles and bags of heroin that someone may have lying right out on the passenger seat during a routine traffic stop. The plain view doctrine also permits certain seizures to be conducted without a warrant. For this reason, the plain view doctrine is considered an exception to the rules that the police would normally follow when conducting searches and seizures.

4th Amendment on Searches and Seizures

The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses the right of the people to privacy, and to be protected against unreasonable search and arrest. The Amendment reads as follows:

“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.”

In practical use, the 4th Amendment on searches and seizures concerns three particular areas:

  • Searches (or invasions of one’s privacy)
  • Seizures of a person (an arrest)
  • Seizures of property

If these actions are not authorized by a search warrant, they must fall into one of the law’s exceptions to the 4th Amendment on searches and seizures. One of these exceptions is known as “plain view doctrine.” What this means is that, if a law enforcement officer is in a place where he has every right to be, and he sees property in plain view that is either contraband or evidence of a crime, then he may lawfully seize that property. Not only that, but it may give him probable cause to arrest the individual in possession of the item.

Such evidence – in order to truly fall under the plain view doctrine – must truly be right in plain sight. For example, if there is drug paraphernalia sitting underneath a napkin, the police officer cannot move the napkin, see the item, then seize it. The contraband in this case would not be considered “in plain view,” and would likely be excluded as evidence.

However, if someone just left those items on a nightstand or coffee table right in plain sight, and the police saw them during a legitimate interaction with the individual, it falls under the doctrine. In that case, the 4th Amendment on searches and seizures dictates that the officer would be within his right to seize the contraband as evidence of a crime.

Search Warrant

A search warrant is an order issued by a judge that permits police officers to search a particular location and, if evidence is found, to seize that evidence from the property. In order to obtain a search warrant, the police must demonstrate that a crime has been committed, and that the items used in connection with the crime are likely to be found in that particular location. In order for a search warrant to be valid, it must meet four basic requirements:

  • It must be requested in good faith by a police officer.
  • It must be based on dependable information that shows there is probable cause to perform a search.
  • It must be issued by a non-biased judge who is not connected to the case in any way.
  • It must specifically state the place that is to be searched, and the items that are to be seized from the premises.

Police are only permitted to search the area specified, and for the specific items mentioned in the warrant. The circumstances under which it may be okay for police to search outside the limits of a warrant is if they are protecting their safety, or that of others. In some cases, this may extend to an attempt to prevent evidence from being destroyed. Police may only seize objects not named in the warrant if those objects are out in plain sight during the search. For instance, during a search for certain documents, any drug paraphernalia left sitting in the middle of the coffee table may be seized.

Searches Without a Warrant

In certain situations, the police are permitted to conduct a search without having previously obtained a warrant. These exceptional situations include:

  • Consent – A person on the premises may give consent to the search. The consent must be given freely and voluntarily, and the person must be an individual who would otherwise normally expect the area being searched to be private.
  • Plain View – Incriminating evidence left in plain view may be seized. If the police, during a routine investigation, happen to notice illegal items, such as weapons or drug paraphernalia, left out in plain sight, they are permitted to seize those items without first securing a warrant.
  • Vehicle Searches. An officer is permitted to search the glove compartment in or near a vehicle when making an arrest in order to uncover any weapons or other items that may pose a danger to himself or others. He may also search a vehicle if he has a legitimate reason to believe that the vehicle contains contraband.
  • Protect against Destruction – If the police have reason to believe that evidence is going to be destroyed before a warrant can be obtained, they are permitted to seize the evidence without first having a search warrant.
  • Protect against Harm – Police may act to protect people who might otherwise be harmed in the time that it takes to secure the warrant. It may take a bit of time to secure a warrant, based on the judge’s schedule and the process of putting the paperwork through. If someone is in imminent danger, then the warrant may be skipped in favor of getting that person out of harm’s way as soon as possible.
  • Hot Pursuit – If the police, while chasing after a fleeing criminal, enter someone’s home, they are permitted to both enter and search the entire area without a warrant.

Plain View Doctrine in a College Dorm

An example of a plain view doctrine in a case that reached the Supreme Court concerned a college student at Washington State University. On January 21, 1978, Officer Daugherty, an officer with the school’s police department, witnessed a student, Carl Overdahl, leave one of the dorms with a half-gallon bottle of gin. Washington law forbid individuals under the age of 21 to possess alcoholic beverages, and Overdahl appeared to be underage, so Daugherty stopped him and asked for identification.

Overdahl said his identification was in his dorm room, and he asked Daugherty if he would wait for him to get it. Daugherty responded by saying that under the circumstances, he would have to accompany Overdahl. To this, Overdahl agreed.

When they reached the room, Daugherty remained in the doorway to watch Overdahl and his roommate, Neil Chrisman. Daugherty observed that Chrisman, nervous upon seeing a policeman in his dorm, was in the midst of hiding a small box in the dorm’s medicine chest. After about 30 to 45 seconds of being in the room, Daugherty noticed seeds and a small pipe lying on a desk about 8 to 10 feet from where he was standing. He believed the seeds to be marijuana seeds, and the pipe to be one that is used to smoke marijuana.

Daugherty entered the room and observed the seeds and pipe, confirming that the seeds were in fact marijuana seeds, and that the pipe smelled like marijuana. Daugherty read Overdahl and Chrisman their rights and asked them if they had any other drugs in the room. Chrisman handed over the small box he had been trying to hide, which turned out to contain three small bags of marijuana, and $112 in cash.

Daugherty then radioed for back-up, and once the second officer arrived, the students were told that a search of their room was necessary. The students were told that they had the right to refuse the search without the officers first obtaining a search warrant, though they could also voluntarily give their consent to the search. The students ultimately consented and even signed releases allowing the officers to search the room. The officers ended up finding more marijuana, as well as LSD.

Chrisman was charged with two felonies for possession. After a motion to suppress the evidence was denied before trial, Chrisman was ultimately convicted on both counts. On appeal, the Washington Court of Appeals affirmed both convictions and upheld the validity of the search.

The Supreme Court of Washington, however, reversed the lower court, finding that, while Overdahl was placed under a lawful arrest, Daugherty had no right to enter the dorm room. Additionally, he had no right to search or seize the roommates’ property without a warrant due to the fact that Overdahl posed no risk of destroying evidence or obtaining a weapon, and he couldn’t even escape due to Daugherty blocking the doorway. The court therefore held that anything found during the search should be suppressed.

The case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari. Ultimately, the Court reversed the Supreme Court of Washington and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court justified its decision as follows:

“Since the seizure of the marihuana and pipe was lawful, we have no difficulty concluding that this evidence and the contraband subsequently taken from respondent’s room were properly admitted at his trial. Respondent voluntarily produced three bags of marijuana after being informed of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 1966). He then consented, in writing, to a search of the room, after being advised that his consent must be voluntary and that he had an absolute right to refuse consent and demand procurement of a search warrant. The seizure of the drugs pursuant to respondent’s valid consent did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Good Faith – Sincerity in one’s intentions.
  • Probable Cause – Facts and circumstances leading to the belief that an accused person has committed a crime. Probable cause does not arise from a suspicion or a “hunch,” but from observable facts and circumstances.