Arizona v. Hicks: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Is Probable Cause Necessary for Seizing Items in Plain View?

Evidence of a crime

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Arizona v. Hicks (1987) clarified the need for probable cause when seizing evidence in plain view. The United States Supreme Court found that officers must reasonably suspect criminal activity in order for them to lawfully seize items in plain view without a search warrant.

Fast Facts: Arizona v. Hicks

  • Case Argued: December 8, 1986
  • Decision Issued: March 3, 1987
  • Petitioner: State of Arizona, represented by the Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, Linda A. Akers
  • Respondent: James Thomas Hicks
  • Key Questions: Is it illegal for a police officer to conduct a warrantless search and seizure of evidence in plain view without probable cause?
  • Majority: Justices Scalia, Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens
  • Dissenting: Justices Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor
  • Ruling: Police officers must have probable cause, even if the evidence they are seizing is in plain view.

Facts of the Case

On April 18, 1984, a gun was fired in James Thomas Hicks’ apartment. The bullet sailed through the floor and struck an unsuspecting neighbor below. Police officers arrived on the scene to help the injured man, and quickly realized the bullet had come from the apartment above. They entered Hicks’ apartment to locate the shooter, weapon, and any other possible victims.

One police officer, referred to in the Supreme Court's ruling as Officer Nelson, noticed high-end stereo equipment that seemed out of place in the otherwise “squalid” four-room apartment. He moved the items to get a look at their serial numbers so that he could read and report them to headquarters. Headquarters alerted Officer Nelson that one piece of equipment, a turntable, had been stolen in a recent robbery. He seized the item as evidence. Officers later matched some of the other serial numbers to open robbery cases and seized more stereo equipment from the apartment with a warrant.

Based on the evidence found in his apartment, Hicks was indicted for robbery. At trial, his attorney motioned to suppress evidence uncovered from the search and seizure of the stereo equipment. The state trial court granted the motion to suppress, and on appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed. The Arizona Supreme Court denied review and the U.S. Supreme Court took the case on a petition.

Constitutional Issues

Coolidge v. New Hampshire had established the “plain view” doctrine, which allows police to seize evidence of criminal activity that is in plain view. The question posed to the Supreme Court in Arizona v. Hicks was whether or not police first need probable cause to initiate search and seizure of an item in plain view.

More specifically, was moving the turntable in Hicks’ apartment to read its serial numbers considered a search under the Fourth Amendment? How does the “plain view” doctrine affect the legality of the search?

Arguments

Assistant Attorney General Arizona, Linda A. Akers, argued the case on behalf of the state. In the state’s opinion, the officer’s actions were reasonable and the serial numbers were in plain view. Officer Nelson entered the apartment through legal means to investigate the commission of a crime. The stereo equipment had been left out in plain view, which suggested that Hicks’ had no expectation that the equipment or its serial numbers would be kept private, Akers argued.

John W. Rood III argued the case for the petitioner. According to Rood, the stereo equipment was tangential to the reason that officers had entered the apartment. They were searching for evidence of gun violence, not robbery. Officer Nelson acted on a suspicious feeling when he examined the stereo equipment. That feeling was not enough to justify a search and seizure of evidence without a warrant, Rood argued. In order to write down the serial numbers, the officer had to touch the equipment and move it, proving that the numbers were not readily apparent. “Wherever a policeman’s eye may go, his body need not follow,” Rood told the Court.

Majority Ruling

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the 6-3 decision. The majority found that probable cause is required to invoke the plain view doctrine when seizing evidence. 

Justice Scalia broke down the case into several separate issues. First, he considered the legality of the initial search. When officers first entered Hicks’ apartment, they did so under exigent (emergency) circumstances. Shots had been fired and they were attempting to apprehend the suspect and evidence of the crime. Thus, the search and seizure of evidence within Hicks’ apartment was valid under the Fourth Amendment, Justice Scalia reasoned.

Next, Justice Scalia examined Officer Nelson’s actions once within Hicks’ apartment. The officer noticed the stereo but had to move it to access its serial numbers. This qualified as a search because the serial numbers would have been hidden from sight if Officer Nelson had not repositioned the object. The content of the search was not important, Justice Scalia wrote, because “a search is a search, even if it happens to disclose nothing but the bottom of a turntable.”

Finally, Justice Scalia addressed whether or not the warrantless search was legal under the Fourth Amendment. The officer lacked probable cause to search the stereo equipment, relying only on his “reasonable suspicion” that it might be stolen, he wrote. This was insufficient to satisfy the requirements of the plain view doctrine. In order to seize something in plain view during a warrantless search, the officer must have probable cause. This means that an officer must have a reasonable belief, based on factual evidence, that a crime has been committed. When Officer Nelson seized the stereo equipment, he had no way of knowing that a theft had occurred or that the stereo equipment could be linked to that theft.

Dissent

Justices Powell, O’Connor, and Rehnquist dissented. Justice Powell argued that there was little difference between looking at an object and moving it as long as both actions were based on reasonable suspicion. Justice Powell thought Officer Nelson’s suspicion was reasonable because it was based on his factual perception that the stereo equipment seemed out of place. Justice O’Connor suggested that Officer Nelson’s actions constituted more of a “cursory inspection” rather than a “full-blown search” and should be justified by reasonable suspicion rather than probable cause.

Impact

Arizona v. Hicks set a precedent for considering probable cause in relation to plain view. The Court took a “bright-line” approach to eliminate any uncertainty as to what level of suspicion is required to conduct a search and seizure of evidence in plain view. Privacy advocates applauded the decision because it limited the range of actions a police officer can take when conducting a plain view search of a private residence. Critics of the ruling focused on the fact that it might hinder reasonable law enforcement practices. Despite concerns, the ruling still informs police protocol today.

Sources

  • Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987).
  • Romero, Elsie. “Fourth Amendment: Requiring Probable Cause for Searches and Seizures under the Plain View Doctrine.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), vol. 78, no. 4, 1988, p. 763., doi:10.2307/1143407.