Do drugs in plain view in the passenger compartment authorize a trunk search?
UPDATED: June 11, 2012
It’s all about you. We want to help you make the right legal decisions.
We strive to help you make confident law decisions. Finding trusted and reliable legal advice should be easy. This doesn't influence our content. Our opinions are our own.
Under these facts, your attorney is going to have a tough time getting evidence suppressed. The reason is the "plain view doctrine."
Plain View Doctrine
“Plain view” is a theory used by many officers to develop probable cause for a search. Anything that can be seen through the window of your car is in “plain view”, even if the officers have to use a flash light to see in. Once officers have probable cause that a crime has been committed, they can search the car in its entirety under the theory that drugs could potentially be stored anywhere in the car.
Your attorney is going to have a difficult time getting the drugs excluded from evidence as illegally seized because there was evidence of a crime, namely possession of marijuana, in plain view. Whether or not the marijuana is suppressed will depend on the credibility of the officer. For example, the marijuana seeds are evidence of a crime. If the officer really saw evidence of a drug crime, did he gather any of the marijuana seeds as evidence? If not, he needs to have a very good excuse for failing to collect evidence involving your case. Have your criminal attorney review the patrol car video before the pre-trial hearing. If the officer never mentions seeing marijuana seeds on the video or in his report, your attorney will have a better chance of attacking the officer’s credibility and getting the evidence thrown out.
Legal Standards for Evidence
However, keep in mind that the "standard" for probable cause for a search is much lower than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” needed to support a criminal conviction. Seeds of marijuana are enough to justify a search, but they may not be enough to support a drug conviction. Your better trial strategy may be to attack the credibility of the officer and the links that were drawn between you and the drugs found. For example, if the drugs were found in the trunk of the car, the state must also prove that you knew the drugs were in the trunk. If you were borrowing the car from a friend, you need to let your attorney know as much as possible about your friend so that he can make an argument that you should not be held accountable for someone else’s property.
Your attorney can also insist that the evidence be tested. Most agencies won’t even try to fingerprint drugs found in a car. Your attorney can file a motion with the court to have the packaging examined and tested for prints. Do not file these motions just because you can, though. If you know the drugs are yours and you did handle them, you may be ordering law enforcement to gather even more evidence against you.
You have the right to challenge the admissibility of evidence against you. To assert this challenge you must do so at a trial or preferably during the pre-trial period. If you do not raise the issue at least during trial, you will waive your right to contest the illegal search later. Work with your attorney to develop your case as quickly as possible to avoid a waiver of valuable rights.