Horton v. California Case Brief

Why is the case important?

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.

Facts of the case

“On January 13, 1985, Erwin Paul Wallaker, the treasurer of the San Jose Coin Club, returned home with the proceeds from the annual coin convention, which Terry Brice Horton attended. Upon entering his garage, two robbers accosted Wallaker

  • one was armed with a machine gun and the other with an electric shocking device. They threw him to the ground, shocked him, bound him, and robbed him of jewelry and cash. During this interaction, Wallaker was able to identify Horton by the sound of his voice. The three witnesses who discovered Wallaker partially corroborated his identification of Horton. They saw someone leaving the scene carrying what looked like an umbrella.Sergeant LaRault determined there was enough evidence to search Horton’s home, and obtained a warrant to do so. His affidavit for the search warrant described both the weapons and the proceeds of the robbery, but the warrant only granted permission to look for the stolen property. While searching Horton’s house, Sergeant LaRault did not find the property, but he did find an Uzi machine gun, a .38 caliber revolver, two stun guns, and a handcuff key, along with other items linking Horton to the crime.The evidence was admitted into evidence at trial, and Horton was found guilty. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, and the California Supreme Court denied the petitioner’s request for review.”


    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.


    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.


    The Court held that, though inadvertence was a characteristic of most legitimate plain view seizures, it was not a necessary condition, so that the items seized from petitioner’s home were discovered during a lawful search authorized by a valid warrant. The Court further posited that when the weapons were discovered, it was immediately apparent to the police officer that they constituted incriminating evidence. The officer 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. Thus, the Court concluded that the search was authorized by the warrant, and the seizure was authorized by the plain view doctrine. The scope of the search was not enlarged in the slightest by the omission of any reference to the weapons in the warrant.

    • Case Brief: 1990
    • Petitioner: Terry Brice Horton
    • Respondent: California
    • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

    Citation: 496 US 128 (1990)
    Argued: Feb 21, 1990
    Decided: Jun 4, 1990
    Granted Oct 10, 1989