Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
United States v. McLevain, 310 F.3d 434 (6th Cir. 2002).
This case answers the following question:
When does a police search exceed the scope of a search warrant?
The issue in this case is whether the police exceeded the plain view exception to the warrant requirement during a search. Under certain circumstances the police may seize evidence in plain view without a warrant. For the plain view exception to apply, the police officer must be legally present, must see something that immediately appears to be evidence, the item seized must actually be in plain view, and the officer must have a lawful right of access to the object itself.
In December 1999, Cauley failed to return from work release at the Daviess County Detention Center. Cauley and his girlfriend, Bell, were friend with McLevain. On the night Cauley disappeared, Bell had been staying at McLevain’s house, and she was picked up there by a friend. Bell then went to Cauley’s mother’s house where she received a phone call from Cauley and borrowed Cauley’s mother’s car for an hour and a half before returning it. Based on this behavior, a search warrant was granted allowing officers to search McLevain’s house. Officers from the Detention Center and the local Sheriff’s Department executed the warrant. Officers seized McLevain and took control of his girlfriend and two children. While searching for Cauley, an officer saw a twist tie and a cut cigarette filter underneath the bed in the master bedroom. While searching in the garage for Cauley, the officers found a spoon with residue in a sink and a prescription bottle with a clear liquid sitting on the fireplace mantel. This evidence was used to obtain a second warrant which led to the discovery of methamphetamine, substantial amounts of cash, various plastic bags, syringes, twist ties, and electronic scales. These items were the basis for the charges filed against McLevain. McLevain filed a motion to suppress objecting to the plain view discovery of the evidence in the first search on the basis that the evidence was not immediately incriminating and that the officers went beyond the scope of a search for an escapee. The district court denied the motion.
For the plain view exception to apply, the police officer must be legally present, must see something that immediately appears to be evidence, the item seized must actually be in plain view, and the officer must have a lawful right of access to the object itself. In this case, the court decided that the items seized were actually in plain view, and that that factor was not in dispute. On finding that the initial search warrant was valid, the court held that the police officers were legally present at McLevain’s house.
To determine whether evidence is immediately apparent, the court looks at several factors, however, none of these factors are necessary. The factors include (1) a nexus between the seized object and the items particularized in the search warrants, (2) whether the intrinsic nature or appearance of the seized object gives probable cause to believe that it is associated with criminal activity, and (3) whether the executing officers can at the time of discovery of the object on the facts then available to them determine probable cause of the object’s incriminating nature. The first factor cannot be used in this case, since the original warrant was for a person and not drug paraphernalia. The evidence seized in this case also fails to meet the second factor. While a twist tie, cigarette filter, spoon, and prescription bottle with liquid may seem out of the ordinary, there is nothing intrinsically criminal about those items. It was only due to the police officer’s experience with narcotics that he suspected those items were being used with methamphetamine. The connection between these items and criminal activity is not enough solely based on the intrinsic nature of the objects. Regarding the third factor, the officers in this case could not determine if they had seen evidence of criminal activity because further investigation was required to establish probable cause to the items association with criminal activity. Therefore, the evidence found at McLevain’s house did not immediately appear to be evidence.
To determine whether the item seized is actually in plain view, the court uses an objectively reasonable test. In this case, the evidence seized was found under a bed and in the garage, both places where a grown man could hide. While the items were found more specifically in a sink and on a fireplace mantel, places where a man could not hide, the items were out in the open in a place where a man could be hiding. If the items had been found in a desk drawer, it would not pass the objective reasonableness test because a grown man could not physically be hiding in the drawer. For this reason, the items seized in this case were actually in plain view.
The final requirement for the plain view exception is that the officer must have a lawful right of access to the object itself. Generally, this means that an officer should obtain a warrant if possible before he seizes an item in plain view; if he can obtain a warrant, then the plain view exception will not apply. In this case, the officers should have obtained a warrant before seizing the spoon and performing a field test on the residue. The evidence was not going anywhere because McLevain had been taking into custody. The officers in this case had no lawful right of access to the items seized.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the judgment of the lower court. The Court found that the officers were legally present, and the items seized were in plain view. However, the court also found that the items seized at the house did not immediately appear to be evidence and, the officers had no lawful right of access to the items seized. For these reasons, the court held that the police officers exceeded the plain view exception to the warrant requirement during a search.