Can Police Search the Parts of a Car Viewed from Outside ?
In Commonwealth v. Milyak, 508 Pa. 2, 6, 493 A.2d 1346, 1348 (1985), the Supreme Court applied these principles to a police officer's observation of the "plainly viewable interior of a vehicle":
There is no reason a police officer should be precluded from observing as an officer what would be entirely visible to him as a private citizen.
There is no legitimate expectation of privacy shielding that portion of the interior of an automobile which may be viewed from outside the vehicle by either inquisitive passersby or diligent police officers.
In short, the conduct that enabled the officer to observe the interior of the car and of the open glove compartment was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Id., quoting Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 740, 75 L. Ed. 2d 502, 103 S. Ct. 1535 (1985) (plurality). Milyak cited Colorado v. Bannister, 449 U.S. 1, 66 L. Ed. 2d 1, 101 S. Ct. 42 (1980) for the proposition that police may seize evidence from a vehicle without a warrant "based on plain view alone without regard to any exigent circumstances" under the United States Constitution. 508 Pa. at 9, 493 A.2d at 1350;
See also Commonwealth v. Merkt, 411 Pa. Super. 127, 600 A.2d 1297, 1299 (Pa. Super. 1992) (authorizing plain view seizure of weapon from auto without reference to exigent circumstances); Commonwealth v. Burton, 292 Pa. Super. 73, 436 A.2d 1010, 1013 (Pa. Super. 1982) (authorizing plain view seizure of marijuana from auto without reference to exigent circumstances).
The trial court found that the sawed-off shotgun was contraband, found in plain view.
Trial Court Opinion, 1/7/99, at 7. the record supports this finding.
The officers saw the shotgun and a shell casing in plain view through an untinted window of an automobile parked on a public street.
Moreover, as discussed above, the school police were acting within the scope of their authority.
For these reasons, the police viewed the evidence from a lawful vantage point.
Appellant does not dispute that the incriminating nature of the evidence was immediately apparent.
Thus, the immediate seizure of the shotgun and shell casing was justified under the plain view exception, regardless of whether exigent circumstances existed. Milyak, 508 Pa. at 9, 493 A.2d at 1350.