Plain view doctrine

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In the United States plain view doctrine allows an officer to seize, without a warrant, evidence and contraband that are found in plain view during a lawful observation. The doctrine is also regularly used by TSA officers while screening persons and property at U.S. airports.[1]

For the plain view doctrine to apply for discoveries, the three-prong Horton test requires:

  1. the officer to be lawfully present at the place where the evidence can be plainly viewed,
  2. the officer to have a lawful right of access to the object, and
  3. the incriminating character of the object to be "immediately apparent."

In order for the officer to seize the item, the officer must have probable cause to believe the item is evidence of a crime or is contraband. The police may not move objects to get a better view. In Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987), an officer was found to have acted unlawfully when the officer moved, without probable cause, stereo equipment to record the serial numbers (the officer was present to investigate a shooting). The plain view doctrine has also been expanded to include the sub doctrines of plain feel, plain smell, and plain hearing.[2]

In Horton v. California 496 U.S. 128 (1990), the court eliminated the requirement that the discovery of evidence in plain view be inadvertent, which had led to difficulties in defining "inadvertent discovery."[3][4][5]


  1. ^ Why We Do What We Do: When Security Officers Find Illegal Items at the Checkpoint Transportation Security Administration
  2. ^ "Fourth Amendment: Annotation Four". Annotations to the Fourth Amendment. FindLaw. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  3. ^ Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136–137 (1990). See also U.S. v. Legg, 18 F.3d 240, 242 (4th Cir. 1994) (restating the Horton rules)
  4. ^ Mack, John A. (1989). "Horton v. California: The Plain View Doctrine Loses its Inadvertency". John Marshall Law Review. 24: 891, 893–98.
  5. ^ Eyer, Robin (1992). "Comment, The Plain View Doctrine After Horton v. California: Fourth Amendment Concerns and the Problem of Pretext". Dickinson Law Review. 96 (3): 467, 482–83.

See also[edit]

  1. RayMing Chang, Why the Plain View Doctrine Should Not Apply to Digital Evidence, 12 Suffolk Journal of Trial and Appellate Advocacy 31 (Spring 2007)