Joseph J. Colarusso, Attorney at Law
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How “plain view” can lead to a vehicle search

Being stopped and searched on a Connecticut road is something many motorists would prefer to avoid. As Findlaw points out, police officers are barred from vehicle searches unless those searches meet specific legal requirements. However, while some search requirements, such as a search warrant, are well known, many motorists may not be aware that something in their vehicle may be giving a police officer a different rationale for a search.

Police officers can search a vehicle under a few specific conditions. Bearing a search warrant is one of the most well known requirements. Also, an officer who has arrested the vehicle’s driver may search the vehicle as well if the search relates to the arrest. Additionally, an officer can conduct a search if the officer has probable cause to think that criminal evidence is present in the vehicle. In some cases, an officer might believe a concealed weapon is in the vehicle that could be used against the officer.  Finally, the driver can give the officer consent to check out his or her vehicle.

Given these circumstances, it does not seem likely that an unassuming driver with no criminal intent has anything to worry about. However, there is one scenario that can provide a police officer with a rationale to search your vehicle. A law enforcement officer may notice an object through the windshield glass of your automobile that strikes the officer as possibly criminal or illegal. For example, an officer may spot something that is believed to be drug paraphernalia in the back seat of your vehicle. The officer then claims the presence of this object provides probable cause for a more complete search of your automobile.

In this scenario, the object was left in “plain view.” An article on Findlaw points out that Fourth Amendment protections apply to property and personal assets that are held in a place where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. A good rule of thumb is that if someone needs to use a telescopic lens to see into your vehicle or home to view your possessions, those possessions are protected from a search. However, anything you own that is out for the public to see is not protected. If a police officer can easily view your material possessions through a car window without the use of surveillance gear, the officer will claim the item was in “plain view.”

In short, while people enjoy Fourth Amendment protections inside of their vehicles just as they would inside of their homes, the windows and windshields of an automobile provide less privacy than that of a home, which can leave material possessions more vulnerable to prying eyes.  

 

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