Arizona v. Hicks,
480 U.S. 321 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987)

Arizona v. Hicks

No. 86-1027

Argued December 8, 1986

Decided March 3, 1987

480 U.S. 321


A bullet fired through the floor of respondent's apartment injured a man on the floor below. Police entered the apartment to search for the shooter, for other victims, and for weapons, and there seized three weapons and discovered a stocking-cap mask. While there, one of the policemen noticed two sets of expensive stereo components and, suspecting that they were stolen, read and recorded their serial numbers -- moving some of them, including a turntable, to do so -- and phoned in the numbers to headquarters. Upon learning that the turntable had been taken in an armed robbery, he seized it immediately. Respondent was subsequently indicted for the robbery, but the state trial court granted his motion to suppress the evidence that had been seized, and the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed. Relying upon a statement in Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, that a warrantless search must be "strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation," the Court of Appeals held that the policeman's obtaining the serial numbers violated the Fourth Amendment because it was unrelated to the shooting, the exigent circumstance that justified the initial entry and search. Both state courts rejected the contention that the policeman's actions were justified under the "plain view" doctrine.


1. The policeman's actions come within the purview of the Fourth Amendment. The mere recording of the serial numbers did not constitute a "seizure," since it did not meaningfully interfere with respondent's possessory interest in either the numbers or the stereo equipment. However, the moving of the equipment was a "search" separate and apart from the search that was the lawful objective of entering the apartment. The fact that the search uncovered nothing of great personal value to respondent is irrelevant. Pp. 480 U. S. 324-325.

2. The "plain view" doctrine does not render the search "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 480 U. S. 325-329.

(a) The policeman's action directed to the stereo equipment was not ipso facto unreasonable simply because it was unrelated to the justification for entering the apartment. That lack of relationship always exists when the "plain view" doctrine applies. In saying that a warrantless search must be "strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation," Mincey was simply addressing the scope of the primary

Page 480 U. S. 322

search itself, and was not overruling the "plain view" doctrine by implication. Pp. 480 U. S. 325-326.

(b) However, the search was invalid because, as the State concedes, the policeman had only a "reasonable suspicion" -- i.e., less than probable cause to believe -- that the stereo equipment was stolen. Probable cause is required to invoke the "plain view" doctrine as it applies to seizures. It would be illogical to hold that an object is seizable on lesser grounds, during an unrelated search and seizure, than would have been needed to obtain a warrant for it if it had been known to be on the premises. Probable cause to believe the equipment was stolen was also necessary to support the search here, whether legal authority to move the equipment could be found only as the inevitable concomitant of the authority to seize it or also as a consequence of some independent power to search objects in plain view. Pp. 480 U. S. 326-328.

3. The policeman's action cannot be upheld on the ground that it was not a "full-blown search," but was only a "cursory inspection" that could be justified by reasonable suspicion instead of probable cause. A truly cursory inspection -- one that involves merely looking at what is already exposed to view, without disturbing it -- is not a "search" for Fourth Amendment purposes, and therefore does not even require reasonable suspicion. This Court is unwilling to create a subcategory of "cursory" searches under the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 480 U. S. 328-329.

146 Ariz. 533, 707 P.2d 331, affirmed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 480 U. S. 329. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 480 U. S. 330. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and POWELL, J., joined, post, p. 480 U. S. 333.

Page 480 U. S. 323

Primary Holding

Under the plain view doctrine, the police must have probable cause to believe that an item in question is evidence of a crime or is contraband in order to search and seize it without a warrant.

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