Lexis Nexis - Case Brief

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Law School Case Brief

Coolidge v. New Hampshire - 403 U.S. 443, 91 S. Ct. 2022 (1971)


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.


Police went to defendant's home on January 28, 1964, to question him about a murder. Defendant was arrested in his house for the murder and on that date a warrant to search defendant's automobile was applied for by the police chief and issued by the Attorney General (who had assumed charge of the investigation and was later the chief prosecutor at the trial), acting as a justice of the peace. The car, which at the time of the arrest was parked in defendant's driveway, was subsequently towed to the police station, where on three occasions  it was searched. Vacuum sweepings from the car as well as from the clothing were used as evidence at the trial, along with one of the guns made available by defendant's wife. On defendant's appeal, the judgment of the lower court regarding the admission of evidence at a murder trial was affirmed. Defendant petitioned for further review in the United States Supreme Court.


Did the search of the automobile violate the Fourth Amendment?




The Court reversed, holding that the warrant that authorized the search and seizure of the automobile was invalid because it had not been issued by a neutral or detached magistrate. The warrant had been issued by the attorney general, who was actively in charge of the investigation of the murder and who was later to be the chief prosecutor at the trial. The Court rejected the contention that the search of the automobile was incident to a valid arrest because defendant was arrested in his house and the car was outside some distance away. The search did not come within the automobile exception to the warrant requirement because the automobile was regularly parked in the driveway and was not fleeing, and the items searched for were not contraband. Finally, the Court found that the car was not an instrumentality of the crime that could be seized in plain view because the police knew in advance of the car's location and had ample opportunity to obtain a valid warrant.

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