DWI Cases and the Plain View Exception to the Warrant Requirement

In a drinking and driving prosecution, almost all evidence discovered during a lawful, warrantless search of a motor vehicle is legally admissible against the defendant under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. The plain view doctrine was established by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971). The original plain view exception required proof of three elements: 1) the police officer had to be lawfully in the viewing area. Basically, the officer must have a legal right to be in the place from which he or she makes the observations. 2) the officer was required to discover the evidence inadvertently, meaning that the officer did not know where the evidence was in advance. 3) the criminal nature of the item must be immediately apparent.

The original test has been modified by the United States Supreme Court in subsequent decisions. In Texas v. Brown, the immediately apparent requirement was modified as the police must have probable cause to associate the item seen in plain view with criminal activity. Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730 (1983). In 1990, the Court again modifed the test as the inadvertent aspect of the discovery of evidence was not a necessary condition. Basically, they did away with the second prong of the test.

As modified, the New Jersey Supreme Court has accepted the three requirements governing the plain view exception as described in Brown. As modified, the plain view exception in New Jersey will require proof that:

1) at the time of the viewing of the evidence, the officer was in a location where he or she had a right to be.

2) the officer discovered the evidence inadvertently, meaning that he or she did not know in advance where the evidence was located and did not intend beforehand to seize it; and

3) there was probable cause to associate the items seen in plain view with the evidence of criminal activity.

Interestingly enough, New Jersey has yet to drop the inadvertent requirement from plain view analysis as was done by the United States Supreme Court in Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990).