Citation. 480 U.S. 321, 107 S. Ct. 1149, 94 L. Ed. 2d 347 (1987)
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Brief Fact Summary.
When investigating a shooting in an apartment, a police officer moved certain stereo equipment, which was very fancy and looked out of place, and learned that it had been taken during an armed robbery.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Only when a police officer had probable cause, not reasonable suspicion, could they invoke the “plain view” doctrine.
A bullet was fired through the floor of the Respondent’s apartment, hitting an individual in the apartment below. In response to the shooting, the police entered the Respondent’s apartment and found three weapons and a stoking-cap mask. One of the officer’s who entered the Respondent’s apartment noticed expensive stereo equipment that looked out of place and he moved the components to check their serial numbers. After phoning the police station, the officer learned that the equipment was taken during a recent armed robbery. The officer seized some of the equipment immediately and obtained a warrant to seize the rest of it, which was determined to have been taken during the same armed robbery.
The Respondent was indicted for robbery. The state trial court granted the Respondent’s motion to suppress, the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed, the Arizona Supreme Court refused to review, and the state filed a petition to the Supreme Court.
Did the officer’s conduct constitute a seizure?
Did the officer’s conduct constitute a search?
Can the “plain view” doctrine be invoked when the police have less than probable cause to believe that the item in question is evidence of a crime or is contraband? Was the search reasonable under the Fourth Amendment?
No. The majority first observed “the mere recording of the serial numbers did not constitute a seizure.”
Yes. The court observed that the officer’s moving of the equipment did “constitute a ‘search’ separate and apart from the search for the shooter, victims, and weapons that was the lawful objective of his entry into the apartment.” The officer’s actions were “unrelated to the objectives of the authorized intrusion, [and] exposed to view concealed portions of the apartment or its contents, did produce a new invasion of respondent’s privacy unjustified by the exigent circumstance that validated the entry.”
No. The majority first observed that the general rule dictates that pursuant to [Coolidge] “under certain circumstances the police may seize evidence in plain view without a warrant.” These occasions occur “[w]here the initial intrusion that brings the police within plain view of such [evidence] is supported . . . by one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement.” The majority then held that only when a police officer had probable cause, not reasonable suspicion, could they invoke the “plain view” doctrine.
In support of this conclusion, the court reasoned that “[d]ispensing with the need for a warrant is worlds apart from permitting a lesser standard of cause for the seizure than a warrant would require, i. e., the standard of probable cause. No reason is apparent why an object should routinely be seizable on lesser grounds, during an unrelated search and seizure, than would have been needed to obtain a warrant for that same object if it had been known to be on the premises.”
Justice Powell, the Chief Justice and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor drafted a dissenting opinion pointing out how the court “holds for the first time that the requirement of probable cause operates as a separate limitation on the application of the plain-view doctrine.” “The [dissent observes how the majority] holds that ‘merely looking at’ an object in plain view is lawful, but ‘moving’ or ‘disturbing’ the object to investigate a reasonable suspicion is not.” In other words, “this distinction between ‘looking’ at a suspicious object in plain view and ‘moving’ it even a few inches trivializes the Fourth Amendment.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Chief Justice and Justice Powell filed a dissenting opinion arguing that the majority was addressing the wrong question and the correct questions was “whether police must have probable cause before conducting a cursory inspection of an item in plain view.” In answering this question, the dissenting justices would have found “that such an inspection is reasonable if the police are aware of facts or circumstances that justify a reasonable suspicion that the item is evidence of a crime.”
It is interesting to recognize how the different opinions treat the movement of an individual’s property a few inches.