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Traffic Stops: Plain View Exception

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In a significant majority of drug possession cases, the manner in which a police officer comes into contact with the accused is through a traffic stop.

A traffic stop is simply that. A police officer pulls your car over because of an alleged traffic infraction. This may include speeding, running a stop sign, making an illegal turn, or any other moving violation. A traffic stop may also be for a non-moving violation, such as an expired tag or seatbelt violation. Or an equipment violation, such as illegal tints or a tail light that's not working.

Either way - a traffic stop gives the police a legal reason to pull you over. It is also an opportunity for a police officer to detain you and investigate possible criminal activity.

Generally, your car cannot be searched with a search warrant. However, Florida has several exceptions to this requirement. The "plain view" exception is one of them.

If an officer approaches your car for the purpose of issuing you a traffic citation, and he or she sees something illegal in their plain view, not only can they arrest you, they may search your car.

Many drug possession charges, such as possession of marijuana (cannabis) and possession of cocaine, stem from plain view arrests or plain view searches.

Here's how it works.

You are driving and you happen to have a small baggie of marijuana or a small baggie of cocaine in your cup holder. You blow through a stop sign without seeing it and the cop lights you up. You're pulled over, he or she approaches your window, and they see the drugs right there in plain sight.

A cop is not required by law to shield their eyes. What's in the cop's plain view is in the cop's plain view. They cannot and will not ignore it.

And since the plain view exception to the warrant requirement allows cops to search your car, a small baggie of marijuana in your cup holder could be used to legally justify a search that may yield more drugs being found in other areas of the car.

Second to the "smell of marijuana," the plain view exception is one of the most common ways that people are arrested for drug possession.

However, "plain view" does not mean hidden out of sight. A cop can't illegally search your car, move items around, find drugs, and then claim that they were in "plain view." Cops do it all the time and it is illegal.

If you are arrested because of drugs allegedly found in "plain view," make sure that you carefully go through all the facts of your traffic stop with your criminal attorney. What a cop puts in his or her report and what really happened are oftentimes two very different things. If the cop manipulated objects in your car to reveal drugs, as opposed to merely observing them while standing by your driver's side window, you may have a valid motion to suppress.