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Law School Case Brief

Tex. v. Brown , Texas v. Clifford Brown , Texas v. Brown, Tex. v. Clifford Brown (1983) - 460 U.S. 730 (1983)


The "plain view" doctrine permits the warrantless seizure by police of private possessions where three requirements are satisfied. First, the police officer must lawfully make an "initial intrusion" or otherwise properly be in a position from which he can view a particular area. Second, the officer must discover incriminating evidence "inadvertently," which is to say, he may not know in advance the location of certain evidence and intend to seize it, relying on the plain-view doctrine only as a pretext. Finally, it must be "immediately apparent" to the police that the items they observe may be evidence of a crime, contraband, or otherwise subject to seizure.


At a routine driver's license checkpoint, a police officer saw a green party balloon, knotted near the tip, drop from the hands of a driver of a stopped automobile to his seat. The officer then shifted his position to obtain a better view and saw several plastic vials, quantities of loose white powder, and an open bag of party balloons in the glove compartment. The officer told the driver to get out of the car after the driver told him he had no license in his possession. The driver complied, and the police officer took the balloon out of the car, the balloon seeming to contain a sort of powdery substance. After the officer displayed the balloon to a fellow officer, they advised the driver that he was under arrest. They also conducted an on-the-scene inventory of the car, discovering several plastic bags containing a green leafy substance and a large bottle of milk sugar. These items and the balloon were seized by the police officers. At a suppression of evidence hearing, a police department chemist testified that the substance in the balloon was heroin, and that narcotics were frequently packaged in ordinary party balloons. The driver was subsequently convicted in the District Court of Tarrant County, Texas, for possession of heroin in violation of state law. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas reversed his conviction, holding that the evidence should have been suppressed because it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and rejecting the state's contention that the "plain view" doctrine justified the police seizure.


Did the “plain view” doctrine justify the police seizure, thereby making the seized item admissible as evidence against the driver?




According to the Court, the  seizure of property in plain view involved no invasion of privacy and was presumptively reasonable, assuming that there was probable cause to associate the property with criminal activity. In this case, the arresting officer had lawfully viewed the green balloon at issue in the interior of the automobile driver's vehicle. The officer also had probable cause to believe that the balloon was subject to seizure under U.S. Const. amend. IV. Accordingly, the plain view exception to the warrant requirement applied; thus, the Court reversed the decision of the appellate court, and remanded for further proceedings.

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