Texas v. Brown

Decision Date19 April 1983
Docket NumberNo. 81-419,81-419
PartiesTEXAS, Petitioner, v. Clifford James BROWN
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

A Fort Worth, Tex., police officer stopped respondent's automobile at night at a routine driver's license checkpoint, asked him for his license, shined his flashlight into the car, and saw an opaque, green party balloon, knotted near the tip, fall from respondent's hand to the seat beside him. Based on his experience in drug offense arrests, the officer was aware that narcotics frequently were packaged in such balloons, and while respondent was searching in the glove compartment for his license, the officer shifted his position to obtain a better view and noticed small plastic vials, loose white powder, and an open bag of party balloons in the glove compartment. After respondent stated that he had no driver's license in his possession and complied with the officer's request to get out of the car, the officer picked up the green balloon, which seemed to contain a powdery substance within its tied-off portion. Respondent was then advised that he was under arrest, an on-the-scene inventory search of the car was conducted, and other items were seized. At a suppression hearing in respondent's state-court trial for unlawful possession of heroin, a police department chemist testified that heroin was contained in the balloon seized by the officer and that narcotics frequently were so packaged. Suppression of the evidence was denied, and respondent was convicted. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, holding that the evidence should have been suppressed because it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Rejecting the State's contention that the so-called "plain view" doctrine justified the seizure, the court concluded that under Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 29 L.Ed.2d 564, for that doctrine to apply, not only must the officer be legitimately in a position to view the object, but also it must be "immediately apparent" to the police that they have evidence before them, and thus the officer here had to know that incriminating evidence was before him when he seized the balloon.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded. ¶ 617 S.W.2d 196, reversed and remanded.

[Syllabus from 731 intentionally omitted] C. Chris Marshall, Fort Worth, Tex., for petitioner.

Allan K. Butcher, Fort Worth, Tex., for respondent.

Justice REHNQUIST announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice WHITE, and Justice O'CONNOR joined.

Respondent Clifford James Brown was convicted in the District Court of Tarrant County, Tex., for possession of heroin in violation of state law. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed his conviction, holding that certain evidence should have been suppressed because it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.1 617 S.W.2d 196. That court rejected the state's contention that the so-called "plain view" doctrine justified the police seizure. Because of apparent uncertainty concerning the scope and applicability of this doctrine, we granted certiorari, --- U.S. ----, 102 S.Ct. 2926, 73 L.Ed.2d 1328, and now reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

On a summer evening in June, 1979, Harold Maples, an officer of the Fort Worth police force, assisted in setting up a routine driver's license checkpoint on East Allen Street in that city. Shortly before midnight Maples stopped an automobile driven by respondent Brown, who was alone. Standing alongside the driver's window of Brown's car, Maples asked him for his driver's license. At roughly the same time, Maples shined his flashlight into the car and saw Brown withdraw his right hand from his right pants pocket. Caught between the two middle fingers of the hand was an opaque, green party balloon, knotted about one half inch from the tip. Brown let the balloon fall to the seat beside his leg, and then reached across the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment.

Because of his previous experience in arrests for drug offenses, Maples testified that he was aware that narcotics frequently were packaged in balloons like the one in Brown's hand. When he saw the balloon, Maples shifted his position in order to obtain a better view of the interior of the glove compartment. He noticed that it contained several small plastic vials, quantities of loose white powder, and an open bag of party balloons. After rummaging briefly through the glove compartment, Brown told Maples that he had no driver's license in his possession. Maples then instructed him to get out of the car and stand at its rear. Brown complied, and, before following him to the rear of the car, Maples reached into the car and picked up the green balloon; there seemed to be a sort of powdery substance within the tied-off portion of the balloon.

Maples then displayed the balloon to a fellow officer who indicated that he "understood the situation." The two officers then advised Brown that he was under arrest.2 They also conducted an on-the-scene inventory of Brown's car, discovering several plastic bags containing a green leafy substance and a large bottle of milk sugar. These items, like the balloon, were seized by the officers. At the suppression hearing conducted by the District Court, a police department chemist testified that he had examined the substance in the balloon seized by Maples and determined that it was heroin. He also testified that narcotics frequently were packaged in ordinary party balloons.

The Court of Criminal Appeals, discussing the Fourth Amendment issue, observed that "plain view alone is never enough to justify the warrantless seizure of evidence." Pet. A-10, quoting Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 468, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 2039, 29 L.Ed.2d 564 (1971) (opinion of Stewart, Douglas, BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ.) It further concluded that "Officer Maples had to know that 'incriminatory evidence was before him when he seized the balloon.' " Pet. A-11 (emphasis supplied), quoting DeLao v. State, 550 S.W.2d 289, 291 (Tex.Cr.App.1977). On the state's petition for rehearing, three judges dissented, stating their view that "[t]he issue turns on whether an officer, relying on years of practical experience and knowledge commonly accepted, has probable cause to seize the balloon in plain view." Pet. A-15, 16.

Because the "plain view" doctrine generally is invoked in conjunction with other Fourth Amendment principles, such as those relating to warrants, probable cause, and search incident to arrest, we rehearse briefly these better understood principles of Fourth Amendment law. That amendment secures the persons, houses, papers and effects of the people against unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires the existence of probable cause before a warrant shall issue. Our cases hold that procedure by way of a warrant is preferred, although in a wide range of diverse situations we have recognized flexible, common-sense exceptions to this requirement. See, e.g., Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 87 S.Ct. 1642, 18 L.Ed.2d 782 (1967) (hot pursuit); United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 51-52, 72 S.Ct. 93, 95-96, 96 L.Ed. 59 (1951) (exigent circumstances); United States v. Ross, --- U.S. ----, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982) (automobile search); Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969); United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 94 S.Ct. 467, 38 L.Ed.2d 427 (1973); and New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1982) (search of person and surrounding area incident to arrest); Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266, 93 S.Ct. 2535, 37 L.Ed.2d 596 (1973) (search at border or "functional equivalent"); Zap v. United States, 328 U.S. 624, 630, 66 S.Ct. 1277, 1280, 90 L.Ed. 1477 (1946) (consent). We have also held to be permissible intrusions less severe than full-scale searches or seizures without the necessity of a warrant. See, e.g., Terry v. Ohio, supra, (stop and frisk); United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, supra, (seizure for questioning); Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979) (roadblock). One frequently mentioned "exception to the warrant requirement," Coolidge v. New Hampshire, supra, 403 U.S., at 443, 91 S.Ct., at 2022, is the so-called "plain view" doctrine, relied upon by the state in this case.

While conceding that the green balloon seized by Officer Maples was clearly visible to him, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that the state might not avail itself of the "plain view" doctrine. That court said:

"For the plain view doctrine to apply, not only must the officer be legitimately in a position to view the object, but it must be immediately apparent to the police that they have evidence before them. This 'immediately apparent' aspect is central to the plain view exception and is here relied upon by appellant. (Citation omitted). In this case then, Officer Maples had to know that 'incriminatory evidence was before him when he seized the balloon.' " Petn. A-10, A-11.

The Court of Criminal Appeals based its conclusion primarily on the plurality opinion of this Court in Coolidge v. New Hampshire, supra. In the Coolidge plurality's view, the "plain view" doctrine permits the warrantless seizure by police of private possessions where three require- ments are satisfied.3 First, the police officer must lawfully make an "initial intrusion" or otherwise properly be in a position from which he can view a particular area. Id., at 465-468, 91 S.Ct., at 2037-2039. Second, the officer must discover incriminating evidence "inadvertently," which is to say, he may not "know in advance the location of [certain] evidence and intend to seize it," relying on the plain view doctrine only as a pretext. Id., at 470, 91 S.Ct., at 2040. Finally, it must be "immediately apparent" to the police that the...

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