Does the plain-view doctrine apply in Wisconsin?

As in all states, residents are protected from unlawful searches and seizures — including arrests — by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. This protection is a cornerstone of criminal defense. Essentially, the Fourth Amendment says that a person or property may not be searched or seized without a warrant.

It is important, however, to understand that there are some exceptions that allow for a warrantless search or seizure. One such exception is the “plain-view” doctrine. This exception, first enunciated by the Supreme Court in Coolidge v. New Hampshire. The Court explained that law enforcement may search or seize contraband that is in “plain view,” if certain criteria are met.

For something to fall within the plain view exception, the officer must be in a location where they have a right to be. Places open to the public, inside a residence they were invited or had a warrant to enter and public streets and highways are examples. Next, the object must be in plain view — hence the name. This means that it is in an obviously-visible location and can be seen without further inspection or searching. For example, if an officer looks into the window of a car on a public street, anything on the back seat would be in “plain view.”

Finally, the incriminating nature of the object must be immediately apparent. This means that the nature of the object is obvious with no additional inspection. For example, items, such as drug paraphernalia and weapons, are common examples. Opaque containers, on the other hand, even if they conceal contraband, likely do not qualify because it is the container that is in plain view, not the contraband.

Source:, “Annotation 4 – Fourth Amendment,” accessed on April 9, 2018

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