An officer stops you for a simple violation, no big deal. They talk to you about your taillight and suggest an auto shop. But, the tide changes quickly. How much have you had to drink tonight? Where are you headed? You follow the beam of his light to the empty beer can in your passenger seat. It’s in plain view. Your traffic stop just went from standard, to a potential DUI, and you’re wondering what brought on this change. You, and the officer, can see it clear as day. But can he use an object inside of your car to incriminate you?

Plain View and DUI: Did I Incriminate Myself?

Can police officers suddenly change their intentions by questioning you and searching your vehicle? Under the plain view doctrine, yes they can. In simple terms, this means that a police officer can search and seize any evidence that is in their “plain view.” More specifically, police cannot act illegally during the first search. Therefore, the example above is an example of proper police behavior. The officer pulled someone over for a traffic violation before discovering the empty beer can.

Second, police must be in a place where they can physically control the evidence. In other words, the evidence must be in plain view and not something found after looking for something. For example, if you are pulled over on suspicion of DUI and have a bag of marijuana lying in plain sight on the dashboard, the officer can seize that evidence. If you are driving around with, what may become, evidence in plain view— in a sense, you are creating the potential for yourself to get caught.

The court in Arizona v. Hicks made the plain view rule in order to prevent police from obtaining warrants during ongoing investigations. In this case, they argue that police who conduct lawful searches should not have to get a warrant for other evidence found during the investigation.

Search Doesn’t Need to Be Unintentional

The plain view doctrine is not just for accidental or unintentional discoveries. If the police have an interest in finding evidence to link someone to a crime, the plain view doctrine can still apply. However, the plain view doctrine relies on the facts. So, if you believe that you might have been illegally searched during what became a DUI stop— speak with your attorney. Discuss the details, and together, you can decide how to move forward.