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Law School Case Brief

People v. Brown - 96 N.Y.2d 80, 725 N.Y.S.2d 601, 749 N.E.2d 170 (2001)

Rule:

Law enforcement officers may properly seize an item in plain view without a warrant if: (i) they are lawfully in a position to observe the item; (ii) they have lawful access to the item itself when they seize it; and (iii) the incriminating character of the item is immediately apparent

Facts:

Pursuant to information that defendant had stolen a tractor, police obtained a search warrant authorizing them to search defendant's property for various specific items associated with the tractor and for any other contraband. Although this last phrase potentially converted the warrant into a general warrant prohibited by U.S. Const. amend. IV, New York's high court adopted a rule permitting severability of warrants that specified certain items sought with sufficient particularity. In this case, although the warrant did not mention the weapons and explosives that were actually found, the scope of the search was consistent with the small size of the tractor identification items sought, and those items were never found. While engaged in this search, officers discovered the weapons and blasting caps in plain sight. The trial court and the appellate division denied defendant's motion to suppress the weapons and explosives seized, holding that the overbroad language could be severed from the warrant and that the police lawfully seized the weapons in plain view while executing the valid (particularized) portion of the warrant. 

Issue:

Were the items of evidence in plain sight pursuant to a search that was within the valid scope of the warrant?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed the order. The Court found that the warrant--to the extent it authorized a search for and seizure of the tractor ignition key and the VIN plate--provided the executing officers lawful access to defendant's home and anything in it that might contain either item. Accordingly, there was no basis to disturb the trial court's determination that the police discovered the guns and blasting caps in plain view within the scope of the valid portion of the warrant.

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