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What is the plain view exception to the warrant requirement in Washington?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jun 24, 2019 | 0 Comments

Most suspects don't usually confess to serious crimes like attempted murder. David Morgan was no exception.

That's why Morgan—when he first spoke to police—didn't admit to trying to murder his ex-wife by setting his own house on fire after she had come to over to pick up their child.

But police didn't need his confession. They had other damning evidence against him, including bloodstain pattern analysis of his clothing suggesting that he was in close proximity to his ex-wife when she suffered her injuries. Naturally, Morgan didn't want the jury to know this, so he file a motion to suppress (i.e. exclude) this evidence from the trial.

Morgan argued that police took his clothing without a warrant, violating his privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The case went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court. Morgan lost, and in State v. Morgan, the Court took the opportunity to clearly explain the plain view exception to the warrant requirement in Washington.

1. Relevant Facts in Morgan

When authorities arrived, Morgan's house was on fire. They found Morgan kneeling in his driveway, barely able to speak. Asked if anyone else was inside, Morgan pointed to the driveway, where police found his ex-wife lying in a pool of blood. She was non-responsive, with severe burns on her upper body and lacerations to her head, among other injuries. When medics transported Morgan to the hospital, they noticed blood on his clothes.

Officer Breault's supervisor ordered him to go to the hospital, get Morgan's clothing, and interview him if possible. Officer Breault did interview Morgan in his hospital room for several hours, during which Morgan told police his version of events: he woke up and realized his house was on fire. He saw his ex-wife standing there, with her sweater on fire, and he tried to help her put the fire out. 

Sometime during their conversation, Officer Breault noticed that hospital staff had put Morgan's clothing into several plastic shopping bags on the rom counter. He eventually secured the clothing and gave it to crime scene investigators for testing and analysis. 

Morgan filed a motion to suppress the warrantless seizure of his clothing. The trial judge in Snohomish County Superior Court denied the motion and a jury later found Morgan guilty of attempted murder, arson, and assault.

The Washington Supreme Court clarifies the plain view doctrine

Under federal law and Washington law, police can't just barge into your home and seize things or approach you on the street and seize stuff. They need a search warrant—a court order authorizing police to search people, search homes, or collect evidence. No warrant, no search.

Unless, that is, an exception to the warrant requirement applies, of which there are several in Washington. One of those is called the “plain view” exception.

The plain view exception isn't as far-reaching as it seems. Police can't simply seize anything they see without a warrant and claim “well, we can plainly see it, so it's ours.” To satisfy the plain view exception, prosecutors have to show two things:

  1. Police had a valid justification to be in an otherwise protected area (i.e. home, apartment)
  2. Police immediately realized that the evidence they see is associated with criminal activity—    that is, police do not have to examine an item closely to realize that it could be evidence of a crime. Finding a box on the kitchen room table, opening a box, then unsealing an envelope inside the box, then finding cocaine inside the envelope would not be a plain view seizure.

Unlike most cases, the Supreme Court started its analysis with an apology. It admitted that its previous interpretation of the plain view doctrine had been confusing. In the past, the Court had sometimes imposed a third requirement for a valid plain view seizure: inadvertence. That is, police could only seize evidence if they came across it unintentionally.

No more, the Court ruled, and it threw out the inadvertence requirement. Police weren't barred from seizing evidence simply because they expected to find evidence in a room—or even hoping they'd find evidence—so long as they can quickly determine without further inspection that it is potential evidence.

Now armed with a clear and definitive two-part test, the Supreme Court went to work on Morgan's case. The justices ruled that Officer Breault lawfully seized Morgan's clothing from his hospital room. Consider these facts: Morgan's clothes smelled like gasoline, the nature of his ex-wife's injuries, Morgan's own statements during the interview, his supervisor's instructions, plus the fact that the officer knew the plastic bag on the hospital room counter contained Morgan's clothes.

In short, based on all the evidence, Officer Breault expected to find Morgan's clothing in his hospital room, he knew the bag contained Morgan's clothing when he saw it, and he knew from all the evidence that Morgan's clothing was associated with a potential crime.

That was enough to justify a warrantless plain view seizure, and the Court affirmed Morgan's convictions.

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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