Legally Yours

Illegal Search? A Legal Opinion on the Plain View Doctrine

Plain View Doctrine

In the case at bar, Earl grew marijuana on his farm and narcotics agents drove to his farm, passed his house, and came upon a locked gate with a “no trespassing” sign. The agents used a footpath to walk around the gate and found a field of marijuana about one mile from Earl’s house. The agents had no warrant but Earl is charged with cultivating marijuana. He, however, argues that the search is illegal. The issue is whether or not the evidence obtained is admissible in court.

Two concepts must first be discussed in order to answer the issue at hand; first, the constitutional grant of the right to privacy, and second, the provisions on search and seizure procedures. Section 2, Article III of the 1987 Constitution provides that:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”1

The provision implies that an individual is afforded the right to his own privacy against unlawful eyes of the probing eyes of outsiders, provided that there is no probable cause that gives ground for a judicial warrant. Furthermore, in Section 3, Article III it is said that “any evidence obtained in violation of this or the preceding section shall be inadmissible for any purpose in any proceeding”2. The Constitution then mandates that search and seizure be made with a judicial warrant, otherwise, the evidence obtained therefrom shall be inadmissible in court. The rule, however, is not absolute.

In the case of People v. Doria3, it is said that search and seizure may be made without a warrant and the evidence obtained therefrom may be admissible in the following instances: 1) search incident to a lawful arrest; 2) search of a moving motor vehicle; 3) search in violation of customs laws; 4) seizure of evidence in plain view; 5) when the accused himself waives his right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the case at bar, the contended exception in the provision of the Constitution in search and seizure is the fourth instance – the seizure of evidence in plain view. The seizure of evidence in plain view, however, must comply with the following requirements: (a) a prior valid intrusion in which the police are legally present in the pursuit of their official duties; (b) the evidence was inadvertently discovered by the police who had the right to be where they are; (c) the evidence must be immediately apparent; and (d) the plain view justified mere seizure of evidence without further search.4 Is there a valid intrusion on the part of the narcotics agents? The answer should be in the affirmative. Although the agents saw the closed gate, there was a valid intrusion on their part for they did not enter the said gate and merely traversed the footpath around the gate. It may be even said that there was no intrusion at all. This first element of the plain view doctrine is closely linked with the constitutional right to privacy. It has been said earlier that the right to privacy entails that an individual be secure in his person, house, papers, and effects against unlawful search. The right to privacy, however, must not be so strictly construed.

The reasonableness of a person’s expectation of privacy depends on a two-part test: (1) whether by his conduct, the individual has exhibited an expectation of privacy; and (2) whether this expectation is one that society recognizes as reasonable.5 Earl fully satisfies the first part of this test. As manifested by his actions of locking the gate and even exerting effort to put up a sign of “no trespassing” clearly shows that he was expecting privacy against intruders. He fails, however, to show that his expectation is reasonable. In the case of Oliver v. United States6, the Supreme Court affirmed the open fields rule in their decision in Hester v. United States7 that an individual may not demand privacy for activities conducted out of doors in fields, except in the area immediately surrounding the home. It is furthered that,

“(O)pen fields do not provide the setting for those intimate activities that the Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance. There is no societal interest in protecting the privacy of those activities, such as the cultivation of crops that occur in open fields. Moreover, as a practical matter, these lands usually are accessible to the public and the police in ways that a home, an office, or commercial structure would not be. It is not generally true that fences or “No Trespassing” signs effectively bar the public from viewing open fields in rural areas.”8 (emphasis supplied)

With the foregoing examples, clearly Earl did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy since the society does not consider expecting privacy in an open field as reasonable, thus, as said earlier, there is a valid, if no intrusion, at all.

Correlating the above discussion with the second element of the plain view doctrine, the agents had every right to be where they were. As earlier mentioned, the agents used a footpath to go around the gate. If there was a footpath situated in the area, it suggests that anyone may actually pass by it since a footpath is an indicator of a habitual walkway of people. Such is the case, the agents saw the evidence in a lawful manner. Clearly, the evidence was immediately apparent as the agents only had to walk by the footpath in order to see that Earl was growing marijuana in his field. Objects falling in the plain view of an officer, who has a right to be in the position to have that view, are subject to seizure and may be presented as evidence.9 Thus, the plain view of the agents of the evidence justified the seizure they made without further search.

In all of the foregoing discussions, it must be deemed that Earl did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy and that the evidence obtained against him was not illegal. As such, in answering the foremost issue at bar, the evidence shall be admissible in court in accordance with the well-enshrined jurisprudence on the plain view doctrine.

1 Section 2, Article III of 1987 Constitution
2 Section 3, Article III of 1987 Constitution
3 People v. Doria, G.R. No. 125299, January 22, 1999
4 People v. Macalaba, G.R. Nos. 146284-86 January 20, 2003
5 Ople v. Torres, G.R. No. 127685 July 23, 1998
6 Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170
7 Hester v. United States, 265 U.S. 57
8 Oliver v. United States, supra
9 Fajardo vs. People, G.R. No. 190889, January 10, 2011

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