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

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

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 (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.


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 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 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.  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.  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.  The court relied on the California Supreme Court’s decision in North v. Superior Court.  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.  The California Supreme Court denied petitioner’s request for review.

Because the California courts’ interpretation of the “plain-view” doctrine conflicts with the view of other courts and because the unresolved issue is important, we granted certiorari.


The Fourth Amendment provides:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, 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.  The “plain-view” doctrine is often considered an exception to the general rule that warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable, but this characterization overlooks the important difference between searches and seizures.  If an article is already in plain view, neither its observation nor its seizure would involve any invasion of privacy.  A seizure of the article, however, would obviously invade the owner’s possessory interest.  If “plain view” justifies an exception from an otherwise applicable warrant requirement, therefore, it must be an exception that is addressed to the concerns that are implicated by seizures rather than by searches.

The criteria that generally guide “plain-view” seizures were set forth in Coolidge v. New Hampshire.  The Court held that the police, in seizing two automobiles parked in plain view on the defendant’s driveway in the course of arresting the defendant, violated the Fourth Amendment.  Accordingly, particles of gunpowder that had been subsequently found in vacuum sweepings from one of the cars could not be introduced in evidence against the defendant.  The State endeavored to justify the seizure of the automobiles, and their subsequent search at the police station, on four different grounds, including the “plain-view” doctrine.  The scope of that doctrine as it had developed in earlier cases was fairly summarized in these three paragraphs from Justice Stewart’s opinion:

“It is well established that under certain circumstances the police may seize evidence in plain view without a warrant.  But it is important to keep in mind that, in the vast majority of cases, any evidence seized by the police will be in plain view, at least at the moment of seizure.  The problem with the `plain-view’ doctrine has been to identify the circumstances in which plain view has legal significance rather than being simply the normal concomitant of any search, legal or illegal.  An example of the applicability of the `plain-view’ doctrine is the situation in which the police have a warrant to search a given area for specified objects, and in the course of the search come across some other article of incriminating character.”  Where the initial intrusion that brings the police within plain view of such an article is supported, not by a warrant, but by one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, the seizure is also legitimate.  Thus the police may inadvertently come across evidence while in `hot pursuit’ of a fleeing suspect.  And an object that comes into view during a search incident to arrest that is appropriately limited in scope under existing law may be seized without a warrant.  Finally, the `plain-view’ doctrine has been applied where a police officer is not searching for evidence against the accused, but nonetheless inadvertently comes across an incriminating object.  What the `plain-view’ cases have in common is that the police officer in each of them had a prior justification for an intrusion in the course of which he came inadvertently across a piece of evidence incriminating the accused.  The doctrine serves to supplement the prior justification—whether it be a warrant for another object, hot pursuit, search incident to lawful arrest, or some other legitimate reason for being present unconnected with a search directed against the accused—and permits the warrantless seizure.  Of course, the extension of the original justification is legitimate only where it is immediately apparent to the police that they have evidence before them; the `plain-view’ doctrine may not be used to extend a general exploratory search from one object to another until something incriminating at last emerges.”

Justice Stewart then described the two limitations on the doctrine that he found implicit in its rationale: First, that “plain view alone is never enough to justify the warrantless seizure of evidence,” and second, that “the discovery of evidence in plain view must be inadvertent.”

Justice Stewart’s analysis of the “plain-view” doctrine did not command a majority, and a plurality of the Court has since made clear that the discussion is “not a binding precedent.”  Justice Harlan, who concurred in the Court’s judgment and in its response to the dissenting opinions, did not join the plurality’s discussion of the “plain-view” doctrine.  The decision nonetheless is a binding precedent.  Before discussing the second limitation, which is implicated in this case, it is therefore necessary to explain why the first adequately supports the Court’s judgment.

It is, of course, an essential predicate to any valid warrantless seizure of incriminating evidence that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which the evidence could be plainly viewed.  There are, moreover, two additional conditions that must be satisfied to justify the warrantless seizure.  First, not only must the item be in plain view; its incriminating character must also be “immediately apparent.”  Thus, in Coolidge, the cars were obviously in plain view, but their probative value remained uncertain until after the interiors were swept and examined microscopically.  Second, not only must the officer be lawfully located in a place from which the object can be plainly seen, but he or she must also have a lawful right of access to the object itself.  As the United States has suggested, Justice Harlan’s vote in Coolidge may have rested on the fact that the seizure of the cars was accomplished by means of a warrantless trespass on the defendant’s property.  In all events, we are satisfied that the absence of inadvertence was not essential to the Court’s rejection of the State’s “plain-view” argument in Coolidge.


Justice Stewart concluded that the inadvertence requirement was necessary to avoid a violation of the express constitutional requirement that a valid warrant must particularly describe the things to be seized.  He explained:

“The rationale of the exception to the warrant requirement, as just stated, is that a plain-view seizure will not turn an initially valid (and therefore limited) search into a `general’ one, while the inconvenience of procuring a warrant to cover an inadvertent discovery is great.  But where the discovery is anticipated, where the police know in advance the location of the evidence and intend to seize it, the situation is altogether different.  The requirement of a warrant to seize imposes no inconvenience whatever, or at least none which is constitutionally cognizable in a legal system that regards warrantless searches as `per se unreasonable’ in the absence of `exigent circumstances.’

“If the initial intrusion is bottomed upon a warrant that fails to mention a particular object, though the police know its location and intend to seize it, then there is a violation of the express constitutional requirement of `Warrants . . . particularly describing . . . the things to be seized.'”

We find two flaws in this reasoning.  First, evenhanded law enforcement is best achieved by the application of objective standards of conduct, rather than standards that depend upon the subjective state of mind of the officer.  The fact that an officer is interested in an item of evidence and fully expects to find it in the course of a search should not invalidate its seizure if the search is confined in area and duration by the terms of a warrant or a valid exception to the warrant requirement.  If the officer has knowledge approaching certainty that the item will be found, we see no reason why he or she would deliberately omit a particular description of the item to be seized from the application for a search warrant.  Specification of the additional item could only permit the officer to expand the scope of the search. On the other hand, if he or she has a valid warrant to search for one item and merely a suspicion concerning the second, whether or not it amounts to probable cause, we fail to see why that suspicion should immunize the second item from seizure if it is found during a lawful search for the first.  The hypothetical case put by JUSTICE WHITE in his concurring and dissenting opinion in Coolidge is instructive:

“Let us suppose officers secure a warrant to search a house for a rifle.  While staying well within the range of a rifle search, they discover two photographs of the murder victim, both in plain sight in the bedroom.  Assume also that the discovery of the one photograph was inadvertent but finding the other was anticipated.  The Court would permit the seizure of only one of the photographs.  But in terms of the `minor’ peril to Fourth Amendment values there is surely no difference between these two photographs: the interference with possession is the same in each case and the officers’ appraisal of the photograph they expected to see is no less reliable than their judgment about the other.  And in both situations the actual inconvenience and danger to evidence remain identical if the officers must depart and secure a warrant.”

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 no warrant issue unless it “particularly describes the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized,” and that a warrantless search be circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.  Scrupulous adherence to these requirements serves the interests in limiting the area and duration of the search that the inadvertence requirement inadequately protects.  Once those commands have been satisfied and the officer has a lawful right of access, however, no additional Fourth Amendment interest is furthered by requiring that the discovery of evidence be inadvertent.  If the scope of the search exceeds that permitted by the terms of a validly issued warrant or the character of the relevant exception from the warrant requirement, the subsequent seizure is unconstitutional without more.  Thus, in the case of a search incident to a lawful arrest, “if the police stray outside the scope of an authorized Chimel search they are already in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and evidence so seized will be excluded; adding a second reason for excluding evidence hardly seems worth the candle.”  Similarly, the object of a warrantless search of an automobile also defines its scope:

“The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile thus is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted.  Rather, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.  Just as probable cause to believe that a stolen lawnmower may be found in a garage will not support a warrant to search an upstairs bedroom, probable cause to believe that undocumented aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase.  Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab.”

In this case, the scope of the search was not enlarged in the slightest by the omission of any reference to the weapons in the warrant.  Indeed, if the three rings and other items named in the warrant had been found at the outset—or if petitioner had them in his possession and had responded to the warrant by producing them immediately—no search for weapons could have taken place.  Again, JUSTICE WHITE’S concurring and dissenting opinion in Coolidge is instructive:

“Police with a warrant for a rifle may search only places where rifles might be and must terminate the search once the rifle is found; the inadvertence rule will in no way reduce the number of places into which they may lawfully look.”

As we have already suggested, by hypothesis the seizure of an object in plain view does not involve an intrusion on privacy.  If the interest in privacy has been invaded, the violation must have occurred before the object came into plain view and there is no need for an inadvertence limitation on seizures to condemn it.  The prohibition against general searches and general warrants serves primarily as a protection against unjustified intrusions on privacy.  But reliance on privacy concerns that support that prohibition is misplaced when the inquiry concerns the scope of an exception that merely authorizes an officer with a lawful right of access to an item to seize it without a warrant.

In this case the items seized from petitioner’s home were discovered during a lawful search authorized by a valid warrant.  When they were discovered, it was immediately apparent to the officer that they constituted incriminating evidence.  He had probable cause, not only to obtain a warrant to search for the stolen property, but also to believe that the weapons and handguns had been used in the crime he was investigating.  The search was authorized by the warrant; the seizure was authorized by the “plain-view” doctrine.  The judgment is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

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