Brief Fact Summary. A police officer initiated a warranted search of a robbery suspect’s home. The warrant specified only the proceeds of the robbery, and not the weapons, even though a description of the weapons was available.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Inadvertence “is not a necessary condition” to plain view seizures. As long as a “police officer . . . had a prior justification for an intrusion in the course of which he came . . .across a piece of evidence incriminating the accused” and so long as the scope of the search is not “enlarged in the slightest,” it is constitutional.
Issue. “[W]hether 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.”
Held. No. The court first described the “plain view” doctrine as “an exception to the general rule that warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable,” but that the doctrine implicates a seizure of an article as an “invasion of privacy.” A search is not implicated, as the article is already in plain view. Quoting from Coolidge v. New Hampshire, the court affirmed the basic doctrine that “the police officer . . . had a prior justification for an intrusion in the course of which he came inadvertently across a piece of evidence incriminating the accused.” However, the court took issue two limitations: “that plain view alone is never enough to justify the warrantless seizure of evidence,” and “that the discovery of evidence in plain view must be inadvertent.” The court dismissed the underlying concern that the doctrine might be used to “turn an initially valid . . . limited . . . search into a” general one on two grounds. First, it seems unlikely that the police officer woul
d “deliberately omit a particular description of the item to be seized from the application of a valid search warrant” simply to create a plain view exception. This was important to the present case because the weapons had been left off of the warrant. Second, if the “scope of the search exceeds that permitted by the terms of a . . . warrant,” then “the . . . seizure is unconstitutional without more.”
Dissent. The dissent argued that the “inadvertent discovery requirement . . . does protect possessory interests.”
Discussion. “Reliance on privacy concerns . . . is misplaced when the inquiry concerns the scope of an exception that merely authorizes an officer a lawful right of access to an item to seize it without a warrant.”