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.
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. 496 U. S. 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 403 U. S. 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 403 U. S. 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 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. 496 U. S. 133-137.
(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 403 U. S. 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. 496 U. S. 137-142.
Full case here: Horton v. California, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1989/88-7164
Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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