496 U.S. 128 (1990), 88-7164, Horton v. California

Docket Nº:No. 88-7164
Citation:496 U.S. 128, 110 S.Ct. 2301, 110 L.Ed.2d 112, 58 U.S.L.W. 4694
Party Name:Horton v. California
Case Date:June 04, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 128

496 U.S. 128 (1990)

110 S.Ct. 2301, 110 L.Ed.2d 112, 58 U.S.L.W. 4694

Horton

v.

California

No. 88-7164

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 1990

Argued Feb. 21, 1990

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA,

SIXTH APPELLATE DISTRICT

Syllabus

A California policeman determined that there was probable cause to search petitioner Horton's home for the proceeds of a robbery and the robbers' weapons. His search warrant affidavit referred to police reports that described both the weapons and the proceeds, but the warrant issued by the Magistrate only authorized a search for the proceeds. Upon executing the warrant, the officer did not find the stolen property, but did find the weapons in plain view and seized them. The trial court refused to suppress the seized evidence, and Horton was convicted of armed robbery. The California Court of Appeal affirmed. Since the officer had testified that, while he was searching Horton's home for the stolen property, he was also interested in finding other evidence connecting Horton to the robbery, the seized evidence was not discovered "inadvertently." However, in rejecting Horton's argument that Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, therefore required suppression of that evidence, the Court of Appeal relied on a State Supreme Court decision holding that Coolidge's discussion of the inadvertence limitation on the "plain view" doctrine was not binding because it was contained in a four-Justice plurality opinion.

Held: The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless seizure of evidence in plain view, even though the discovery of the evidence was not inadvertent. Although inadvertence is a characteristic of most legitimate plain view seizures, it is not a necessary condition. Pp. 133-142.

(a) Coolidge is a binding precedent. However, the second of the Coolidge plurality's two limitations on the plain view doctrine -- that the discovery of evidence in plain view must be inadvertent, id. at 469 -- was not essential to the Court's rejection of the State's plain view argument in that case. Rather, the first limitation -- that plain view alone is never enough to justify a warrantless seizure, id. at 468 -- adequately supports the Court's holding that gunpowder found in vacuum sweepings from one of the automobiles seized in plain view on the defendant's driveway in the course of his arrest could not be introduced against him because the warrantless seizures violated the Fourth Amendment. In order for a warrantless seizure of an object in plain view to be valid, two conditions must be satisfied in addition to the essential predicate that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which

Page 129

the object could be plainly viewed. First, the object's incriminating character must be "immediately apparent," id. at 466. Although the cars in Coolidge were obviously in plain view, their probative value remained uncertain until after their interiors were swept and examined microscopically. Second, the officer must have a lawful right of access to the object itself. Justice Harlan, who concurred in the Coolidge judgment but did not join the plurality's plain view discussion, may well have rested his vote on the fact that the cars' seizure was accomplished by means of a warrantless trespass on the defendant's property. Pp. 133-137.

[110 S.Ct. 2304] (b) There are two flaws in the Coolidge plurality's conclusion that the inadvertence requirement was necessary to avoid a violation of the Fourth Amendment's mandate that a valid warrant "`particularly describ[e] . . . [the] . . . things to be seized,'" id. at 469-471. First, even-handed law enforcement is best achieved by applying objective standards of conduct, rather than standards that depend upon the officer's subjective state of mind. The fact that an officer is interested in an item and fully expects to find it should not invalidate its seizure if the search is confined in area and duration by a warrant's terms or by a valid exception to the warrant requirement. Second, the suggestion that the inadvertence requirement is necessary to prevent the police from conducting general searches, or from converting specific warrants into general warrants, is not persuasive, because that interest is already served by the requirements that an unparticularized warrant not be issued and that a warrantless search be circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation. Here, the search's scope was not enlarged by the warrant's omission of reference to the weapons; indeed, no search for the weapons could have taken place if the named items had been found or surrendered at the outset. The prohibition against general searches and warrants is based on privacy concerns, which are not implicated when an officer with a lawful right of access to an item in plain view seizes it without a warrant. Pp. 137-142.

Affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 142

Page 130

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we revisit an issue that was considered, but not conclusively resolved, in Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971): Whether the warrantless seizure of evidence of crime in plain view is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment if the discovery of the evidence was not inadvertent. We conclude that even though inadvertence is a characteristic of most legitimate "plain view" seizures, it is not a necessary condition.

I

Petitioner was convicted of the armed robbery of Erwin Wallaker, the treasurer of the San Jose Coin Club. When Wallaker returned to his home after the Club's annual show, he entered his garage and was accosted by two masked men, one armed with a machine gun and the other with an electrical shocking device, sometimes referred to as a "stun gun." The two men shocked Wallaker, bound and handcuffed him, and robbed him of jewelry and cash. During the encounter, sufficient conversation took place to enable Wallaker subsequently to identify petitioner's distinctive voice. His identification was partially corroborated by a witness who saw the robbers leaving the scene, and by evidence that petitioner had attended the coin show.

Sergeant LaRault, an experienced police officer, investigated the crime and determined that there was probable cause to search petitioner's home for the proceeds of the robbery

Page 131

and for the weapons used by the robbers. His affidavit for a search warrant referred to police reports that described the weapons as well as the proceeds, but the warrant issued by the Magistrate only authorized a search for the proceeds, including three specifically described rings.

Pursuant to the warrant, LaRault searched petitioner's residence, but he did not find the stolen property. During the course of the search, however, he discovered the weapons [110 S.Ct. 2305] in plain view and seized them. Specifically, he seized an Uzi machine gun, a .38 caliber revolver, two stun guns, a handcuff key, a San Jose Coin Club advertising brochure, and a few items of clothing identified by the victim.1 LaRault testified that, while he was searching for the rings, he also was interested in finding other evidence connecting petitioner to the robbery. Thus, the seized evidence was not discovered "inadvertently."

The trial court refused to suppress the evidence found in petitioner's home and, after a jury trial, petitioner was found guilty and sentenced to prison. The California Court of Appeal affirmed. App. 43. It rejected petitioner's argument that our decision in Coolidge required suppression of the seized evidence that had not been listed in the warrant because its discovery was not inadvertent. App. 52-53. The court relied on the California Supreme Court's decision in North v. Superior Court, 8 Cal.3d 301, 104 Cal.Rptr. 833, 502 P.2d 1305 (1972). In that case, the court noted that the discussion of the inadvertence limitation on the "plain view" doctrine in Justice Stewart's opinion in Coolidge had been joined by only three other Members of this Court, and therefore was not binding on it.2 The California Supreme Court denied petitioner's request for review. App. 78.

Page 132

Because the California courts' interpretation of the "plain view" doctrine conflicts with the view of other courts,3 and because the unresolved issue is important, we granted certiorari, 493 U.S. 889 (1989).

Page 133

II

The Fourth Amendment provides:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, [110 S.Ct. 2306] shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The right to security in person and property protected by the Fourth Amendment may be invaded in quite different ways by searches and seizures. A search compromises the individual interest in privacy; a seizure deprives the individual of dominion over his or her person or property. United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984). The "plain view" doctrine is often considered an exception to the general rule that warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable,4 but this characterization overlooks the important difference between searches and seizures.5 If an article is already in plain view, neither its observation nor its seizure would involve any invasion of privacy. Arizona v. Hicks,

Page 134

480 U.S. 321 (1987); Illinois v. Andreas, 463 U.S. 765, 771 (1983). A...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP