Horton v. California

Horton v. California Case Brief

United States Supreme Court
496 U.S. 128 (1990)

ISSUE: Is the warrantless seizure of evidence of crime in plain view prohibited by the 4th Amdt. if the discovery of the evidence was not inadvertent?
HOLDING: No, even though inadvertence is a characteristic of most legitimate "plain view" seizures, it is not a necessary condition.
  • D robbed the treasurer of a coin club in V's garage of jewelry and cash along with one other
  • V was able to recognize D's voice to identify him
  • Police obtained a search warrant for proceeds of the crime only (2 rings) but not weapons even though they were in the affidavit
  • Upon searching D's home, police found the weapons in plain view and didn't find the rings
  • Trial ct. denied D's suppression motion
  • Officer testified that he was interested in finding other evidence connecting D to the robbery during the search
  • Ct. App. affirmed
  • Plain view doctrine: Justifies the warrantless seizure of evidence in plain view, but not a search because something in plain view is not searched
    • Warrantless searches are still per se unreasonable
  • Coolidge v. New Hampshire: Plain view doctrine serves to supplement the prior justification police had for a search, whether it be a warrant, hot pursuit, search incident to arrest, or some other legitimate reason
    • Recognized applications:
      1. Warrant to search a given area for specified objects
      2. Search justified by an exception to the warrant requirement
      3. Police inadvertently come across evidence not during a search
  • 2 additional conditions for warrantless seizures:
    1. The item must be in plain view and the incriminating character must be "immediately apparent"
    2. Officer must be lawfully located in the place from which the object can be plainly seen and must have a lawful right of access to the object itself
  • No inadvertence requirement:
    • Evenhanded law enforcement is best achieved through objective standards of conduct rather than depending on the subjective state of mind of officers
      • No reason why an officer wouldn't get a warrant for something he knows is going to be there
      • Suspicion that something will be found there shouldn't immunize it from seizure
    • Particularity concerns are quelled by the requirement that no warrant shall issue unless it "particularly describes the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized"
  • No privacy concern: Reliance on privacy concerns is misplaced because the officers already have a lawful right to be there
DISSENT - Brennan:
  • Majority ignores 4th Amdt.'s particularity requirement
  • Seizure without a warrant is per se unreasonable
  • No reason an officer shouldn't get a warrant if he knows something is going to be there
  • Suppression will force officers to comply


  • The "Plain View" Doctrine justifies the warrantless seizure of contraband found in plain view, not a warrantless search. To illustrate this point, see Arizona v. Hicks. Essentially this means that if the police see cocaine sitting on a kitchen table through the window of a house, they may not force entry into the house and seize the contraband. The entry would be a "search" for which a warrant, consent, or exigency would be needed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment (see Johnson v. United States). However, the police may still use this information to establish probable cause to obtain a warrant.

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