What Is the "Plain View Doctrine"?

The “plain view doctrine” comes into play when a Texas law enforcement official makes a warrantless traffic stop on a motorist. While a warrant may give the law enforcement official some rights to search the person and property of the stopped individual, in most cases police and other officials make traffic stops based on real time perceived violations of the law.

When the law enforcement official approaches the stopped vehicle they are allowed to look at and make observations of the vehicle and driver. The stopping official may look into the vehicle and if during that time they see something illegal they may seize it as evidence of a crime against the driver. For example, if a driver was subjected to a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving and the officer saw drugs on the front seat of the car next to the driver, that officer could seize the drugs as they were found in plain view.

Additionally, and based on the law enforcement official’s plain view discovery of the drugs, that official could extend their search of the driver and their property since, based on their plain view find, they would have probable cause of drugs in the possession of the driver. The police officer may examine the compartments of the vehicle, the pockets of the driver and other locations to seek out more evidence of drugs.

However, the limits of the plain view doctrine can be breached. In cases in which criminal allegations are built against individuals based on plain view evidence, it is important that the defendants have their criminal defense strategies reviewed by defense attorneys. Illegal searches can be premised on seemingly legal plain view searches and the rights of criminal defendants should be protected in such situations.

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