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Defining the plain-view doctrine in New York

In New York, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens against unlawful arrests, seizures and searches. For this reason, the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment are a crucial component of criminal defense in the Empire State and throughout the United States. Understanding one's Fourth Amendment rights is important for a citizen - even if he or she is not a criminal defendant.

Generally speaking, a law enforcement officer must have probable cause to search or arrest a person. Probable cause is usually demonstrated by a combination of facts and circumstances that an officer uses to apply for a search or arrest warrant. If an officer has a warrant, probable cause is usually presumed. But there are some exceptions to the warrant requirement that allow an officer to make an arrest or perform a search without first obtaining one.

Once such exception to the warrant requirement is the plain-view doctrine. This exception allows an officer, under certain circumstances, to seize contraband that is in plain view of the officer. For something to be considered in plain view, the officer must be in a place where she is legally entitled to be, such as on a public street or in a residence with the consent of the owner or renter.

Next, the contraband must be visible to the officer without any additional searching or inspection. For example, if an officer stops a motorist for speeding on a public highway and notices drug paraphernalia on the back seat of the car, the paraphernalia would be in plain view. Finally, in order to be seized or examined under the plain-view doctrine, an object's incriminating nature must be "immediately apparent." For example, if the drug paraphernalia on the car seat were inside an innocuous, opaque container, it would not be in plain view.

Rather, the container, which does not immediately appear incriminating is the object in plain view, not the paraphernalia itself. Thus, an officer would have to investigate further to discover the contraband, and it therefore, could not be said to have been in plain view. Fourth Amendment issues can be quite nuanced, and that is why it is crucial for anyone charged with a crime to seek the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Source: FindLaw.com, "Annotation 4 - Fourth Amendment," accessed May 1, 2018

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