Pornography and Privacy in Plain View: Applying the Plain View Doctrine to Computer Searches

With the vast majority of American households owning a computer, technology is a permanent fixture in everyday life. From boardrooms to dorm rooms, computers are capable of storing and manipulating data in previously unimaginable ways. This technology is also changing the methods by which crimes are planned and executed. As a result, hard drives and other memory devices often provide evidence to government agents during their investigations. Computer searches present challenging constitutional issues because the Framers drafted the Fourth Amendment to define the boundaries of traditional physical searches. As reflected by a federal circuit split and several wildly unpredictable court decisions, a complex issue arises when, during a warranted computer search, the government relies on the plain view doctrine to seize digital evidence. This Note examines the plain view doctrine’s proper scope and application in computer searches. Although the Fourth Amendment was originally created to define the parameters of lawful, physical searches, its principles and exceptions must also broadly extend to computers. A warrant’s language—not categorical restrictions—should ultimately define the permitted scope of plain view seizure.