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LEGAL

RESEARCH

Texas v. Brown

Facts

An officer stopped the defendant’s automobile at night at a routine driver’s license checkpoint. The officer asked the defendant for his license, and shined his flashlight into the car. He saw an opaque, green party balloon, knotted near the tip, fall from the defendant’s hand to the seat beside him. Based on his experience in drug offense arrests, the officer was aware that narcotics were frequently packaged in this way. While the defendant was looking in the glove compartment for his license, the officer shifted his position to obtain a better view and noticed small plastic vials, loose white powder, and an open bag of party balloons in the glove compartment. After the defendant stated that he did not have a driver’s license in his possession, he complied with the officer’s request to get out of the car. The officer picked up the green balloon, which appeared to contain a powdery substance within its tied-off portion. He placed the defendant under arrest and searched the car. Other items were seized.

Issue

Whether the evidence was obtained in plain view?

Held

Yes. “Plain view” is used to describe the legal seizure of evidence obtained by an officer is lawfully present and observes something in which he or she has probable cause (“immediately apparent”) to believe is evidence of a crime.

Discussion

The Court held the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in seizing the balloon. The “plain view” doctrine provides grounds for a warrantless seizure of a suspicious item when the officer’s access to the item has some prior justification under the Fourth Amendment. Here, the officer’s initial stop of the defendant’s vehicle was valid, and his actions in shining his flashlight into the car and changing his position to see what was inside did not violate any privacy rights. The “immediately apparent” requirement of the “plain view” doctrine does not mean that a police officer “know” that certain items are contraband or evidence of a crime. The officer must only have probable cause at the moment of seizure. Probable cause is a flexible, common sense standard, merely requiring that the facts available to the officer would warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that certain items may be contraband or stolen property or useful as evidence of a crime. The officer had probable cause to believe that the balloon contained a controlled substance.

Citation

460 U.S. 730, 103 S. Ct. 1535 (1983)

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