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How The “Plain View Doctrine” Helps Police In Drug Cases

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How The “Plain View Doctrine” Helps Police In Drug Cases


A police officer does not always need a search warrant to look for and seize evidence of a possible crime. Under a judicial rule known as the “plain view doctrine,” an officer who is lawfully present at a location may seize an item that is in plain view–i.e., it is not hidden or concealed–and there is probable cause to believe that item is evidence of a criminal offense. For example, if a police officer conducts a routine traffic stop and sees a bag of marijuana on the seat next to the driver, that evidence could lawfully be seized under the plain view doctrine.

Texas Man Sentenced to 7 Years for Violating Probation

The key to the plain view doctrine is the lawfulness of the police officer’s presence. A recent decision from the Texas Seventh District Court of Appeals, Harris v. State, provides a more concrete, real-world example of what we are talking about. In this case, two police officers arrived at a house to execute an arrest warrant in an unrelated matter. They found the defendant in the garage of the home. One of the officers asked the defendant for permission to enter the garage. The defendant–who was not the target of the arrest warrant–gave his consent.

While present in the garage, the officer observed in plain view a number of items that he considered drug paraphernalia. Specifically, he saw items commonly used for smoking methamphetamine. The officer then proceeded to complete their arrest of the third person. The officer left and then later returned to the garage to question the defendant further.

The officer asked point-blank if the defendant–who was already on probation for a felony drunk driving conviction–had anything illegal on him. The officer said the defendant “hesitated” and reached into his pocket. This prompted the officer to stop and frisk the defendant, whereupon the officer discovered a vial that appeared to contain meth.

Prosecutors subsequently moved to revoke the defendant’s probation for this and other alleged violations of the terms of his community supervision. The judge revoked probation and sentenced the defendant to seven years in jail. Although any single violation could justify revocation, the judge did place emphasis on the fact the defendant was found in possession of illegal drugs.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the warrantless police search of him was illegal. The Seventh District disagreed. It held the plain view doctrine applied to the officer’s actions in this case. The officer was lawfully in the garage–indeed, he had the plaintiff’s consent–when he observed the drug paraphernalia. That provided sufficient evidence to arrest the defendant and conduct a search of his person incidental to that arrest. Although the defendant suggested the officer leaving and coming back to the garage somehow negated the plain view doctrine, the appellate court concluded, “If the officer had the right to be where he or she encountered the contraband in plain view, subsequently re-entering the area to seize that property is permissible.”

Contact Pearland Criminal Defense Attorney Keith B. French Today

Drug cases often hinge on the legality of a police search. That is why if you are charged with possession of a controlled substance it is crucial you seek out legal representation from an experienced Pearland drug crimes lawyer. Contact the offices of Keith B. French Law, PLLC, today, to schedule a consultation with a member of our team.


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