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Tom Chaves Law Discusses Changes to Plain View Doctrine

In every state, including New Jersey, driving while in the possession of drugs is illegal. Just having an illegal substance in your car while driving could subject you to serious fines and consequences, including a possible loss of license and jail time.

One of the ways a police officer might find out you are in possession of an illegal substance is the “Plain View Doctrine.” If a police officer stops your car for any legal reason – such as for running a stop sign – he or she can search the car without getting a warrant if the officer reasonably believes he or she will find evidence of criminal activity, like possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia (such as a marijuana pipe or bong). It’s easy to have probable cause – the reasonable belief that you may be committing a crime – if evidence of the crime is easily visible from outside the car in “plain view.” The rule basically gives an officer permission to search or investigate anything that they can see from outside the vehicle, such as rolling papers or an open alcohol container, even if the vehicle was originally pulled over for something completely unrelated.

State v. Gonzalez

In the recent case of State v. Gonzalez, the New Jersey Supreme Court actually made it even easier for a police officer to take advantage of the plain view doctrine. In Gonzalez, police officers were following a defendant whom they learned was going to be picking up bags with large quantities of heroin. Normally, the police officers would have needed to obtain a search warrant to search defendant’s vehicle based on the knowledge that the defendant would be using it to move drugs. However, after defendant picked up the heroin, he made several traffic violations while driving away, including speeding, running a red light, and driving through a Garden State Parkway toll booth without paying. After the officers pulled the vehicle over, they saw from outside the car that the bags had opened and spilled on the rear floorboards, including bricks of heroin. The defendant was immediately arrested, and the bags were taken and sealed.

The defendant was eventually convicted for possession of heroin. However, on the first appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the conviction, saying the plain view doctrine did not apply because the police officers already suspected that the vehicle would contain drugs when they pulled the driver over. The Appellate Division said that the plain view doctrine – seeing the bags open in the back of the car – only let police officers search a vehicle without a warrant if the car was pulled over for something unrelated, like a traffic violation, and the police officers saw the illegal items “inadvertently.”

On second appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling again, upholding the conviction, and stating that there was no inadvertence requirement for the plain view doctrine. It didn’t matter whether or not the police officers knew they would find drugs in defendant’s vehicle when they pulled him over. The fact that the drugs were clearly visible from outside the car, and the traffic stop was legal, was enough to allow the police officers to search the vehicle and use the heroin as evidence against the driver at trial. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial judge’s conviction of the defendant for possession of heroin.

How an Attorney Can Help if You Are Charged with Illegal Possession

A police officer still does not have an absolute right to search a vehicle – there are limits to what the officer can search when it comes to both private and commercial cars, trucks, and tractor trailers. A warrantless search must always be reasonable.

If you are charged with illegal possession of any substance, including marijuana, open alcohol containers, or other drugs, you could be facing extremely serious consequences, including fines, loss of license, and jail time. An experienced attorney will be able to help by making sure the charges against you are fair and that your rights were protected.

New Jersey Attorney Tom Chaves Will Fight for All of Your Rights

If you are charged with a DUI or possession crime, a lawyer who knows the ins and outs of dealing with your charges will be able to sit down with you, review your case, and explain your specific situation. If your case goes to court, an experienced attorney will also be able to help defend you and fight to defend your case. For a free consultation, call us at 908-256-3039 or contact us online today. We represent individuals with criminal charges in Somerset County, Hunterdon County, Middlesex County and Union County.

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