Plain View/Open Field

Plain View-The observation of objects of evidentiary value that can be clearly seen from public places does not constitute a fourth amendment search. The location of the viewed object, however, maybe located in a place where the officer may not have a legal right to go without a search warrant.

Open Field-Under the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution, peoples' right to be secure in their "persons, houses, papers and effects", does not extend to "open fields". Police searches of pastures, wooded areas, vacant lots, and open water, do not require warrants, probable cause, or consent.

Click on the case titles to link to the full case decision.

Hester v. US, 265 U.S. 57 (1924)-the special protection accorded by the Fourth Amendment to the people in their 'persons, houses, papers and effects,' is not extended to the open fields.

United States v. Lee, 274 U.S. 559 (1927)-Plain view is not affected by the use of spot lights and field glasses (binoculars).

Wayne v. US, 318 f. 2d 205 (Court of Appeals DC Circuit, 1963)-Police, having a report of an unconscious person in a home, can force entry to check the welfare of the person as an exigent circumstance. Evidence found in plain view after entry is admissible. The Court stated, "Acting in response to reports of "dead bodies," the police may find the "bodies" to be common drunks, diabetics in shock, or distressed cardiac patients. But the business of policemen and firemen is to act, not to speculate or meditate on whether the report is correct. People could well die in emergencies if police tried to act with the calm deliberation associated with the judicial process. Even the apparently dead often are saved by swift police response."

Harris v. US, 390 U.S. 234 (1968)-As long as a police officer has a lawful right to be in the position to have a particular view, any object that falls within that view may be subject to seizure and may be introduced into evidence.

Washington v. Chrisman, 455 U.S. 1(1982)-A police officer can follow an arrested person into his residence without permission or "exigent circumstances". The officer can seize any contraband found in plain view upon entering the residence.

Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730 (1983)-This case addressed "plain view" issues with the following :

Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984)-Steps taken to protect privacy on secluded land and erecting fences and "No Trespassing" signs around the property, do not establish that expectations of privacy in an open field are legitimate in the sense required by the Fourth Amendment.

United States v. Johns, 469 U.S. 478 (1985)-The warrantless search of the packages based on probable cause, developed in part by smelling the odor of marijuana, was not unreasonable merely because it occurred three days after the packages were unloaded from the trucks.

California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207(1986)-The Fourth Amendment simply does not require police traveling in the public airways at 1000 feet in a fixed wing aircraft to obtain a warrant in order to observe what is visible to the naked eye.

Dow Chemical Co. v. United States, 476 U.S. 227(1986)-The use of vision enhancement equipment accessible to the public to examine open fields from a plane is permissible.

New York v. Class, 475 US 106 (1986)-A person does not have a privacy interest in the V.I.N. (vehicle identification number). Class was stopped on traffic for speeding and a cracked windshield. The officer wanted to inspect the V.I.N. located on the dash. The officer had to enter the vehicle and move items covering the V.I.N. When he entered the vehicle he found a gun. The court ruled that the steps to inspect the V.I.N. was reasonable and the gun was legitimately found in plain view.

Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321(1987)-On a warrantless entry into a residence, a police officer cannot, based on reasonable suspicion, move a stereo to find and check the serial number to see if the stereo is stolen. Moving the stereo made the action a search. Probable Cause is required to invoke the "plain view" doctrine.

United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987)-The warrantless naked-eye observation of an area protected by the Fourth Amendment from an open field is not unconstitutional.

US v. Lovell, 849 F.2d 910 (5th Cir. 1988)-Officers could not smell a marijuana odor coming from a suitcase. They squeezed some air from the case. They then were able to smell marijuana. The court did not think that a light press of the hands along the outside of a suitcase is sufficiently intrusive to require a different result. "[S]ome investigative procedures designed to obtain incriminating evidence from the person are such minor intrusions upon privacy and integrity that they are not generally considered searches or seizures subject to the safeguards of the fourth amendment."

Florida v. Riley, 488 US 445 (1989)-Viewing contraband located on private property from a helicopter flying at 400ft. falls within the "plain view" doctrine and is not a search. The helicopter must be operated at a level that the general public can operate.

Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990)-Before an officer can seize items found in plain view, a two-pronged test must be met. 1) The incriminating nature of the item in plain view must be immediately apparent. 2) The officer must be lawfully located  in a position  from which he or she can plainly see the item and have lawful access to it. It is possible for an officer to be in a legal place to see the item, but not be able to seize it without a warrant. For example: The officer walks by an apartment and sees through a window marijuana on the table inside. The officer will either have to get consent or a warrant to enter the residence to seize the marijuana.

Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993)-During a Terry frisk, an officer detects something which he immediately knows is not a weapon, but also immediately knows, based on training a experience, is contraband. It can be seized, provided the officer immediately knows it is contraband without any further manipulation or inspection.

US v. Ishmael, 48 F.3d 850 (5th Cir. 1995)-The use of a thermal imager in an open field does not offend the Fourth Amendment.

Boatright v. State, 483 S.E.2nd 659 (Georgia)(1997)-Officers stopped Boatright's car on traffic. During the stop, he was pat searched. The officer felt in his pocket "some type of plastic". Boatright lied and said that the item was keys. The officer removed the item and discovered that it was a bag of marijuana. Boatright was arrested. The evidence was excluded because the officer exceeded the scope of the plain-feel doctrine. The officer must know immediately that the item was contraband.

US v. Carter, 03a0017p.06 (6th Cir.)(2003)-Officers were investigating drug violations at a motel. They knocked on the door and the occupant opened. The officers smelled the odor of burned marijuana and saw a "blunt" (hollowed out cigar filled with marijuana) in plain view. The officers had the exigent circumstance of the possible rapid destruction of evidence. They were justified in entering the motel without a warrant and seize the "blunt".

US v. Martinez, 406 f.3d 1160 (9th Cir. 2005)-Officers responded to a domestic call. Upon arrival, the female party was outside. The officers heard the male party inside yelling. They conducted a warrantless entry to make sure the male was not getting a weapon or injured. The officers found several firearms in plain view. The male was a convicted felon and was arrested. The Court held that the evidence was lawfully obtained because the officers had exigent circumstances to enter the residence.

US v. Snipe, 515 f.3d 947 (9th Cir. 2008)-A hysterical person called the police and said something to the effect of, "get the cops here now", then hung up. The police arrived and entered through an ajar front door. They found the defendant inside with a large amount of drugs, paraphernalia, and a gun with the serial number removed. Snipe was arrested. He sought to have the evidence excluded based on unlawful entry by police. The Court held that the officers' belief that someone inside needed emergency aid was objectively reasonable and the entry was lawful.

US v. Vankesteren, 553 F.3d 286 (4th Cir. 2009)-Agents, without a warrant, entered onto the open field (farmland) belonging to Vankesteren and placed a video camera to record a hawk trap that Vankesteren was using in violation of the law. The Court held that there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment.