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Court Makes It Easier for Prosecutors to Use Seized Items in California Case

June 4, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today made it easier for prosecutors to use items seized by police without court warrants as evidence against criminal defendants.

Items discovered ″in plain view″ during warrantless police searches may be used as evidence even if the discovery was not inadvertent, the justices said by a 7-2 vote in a California case.

Clarifying its 19-year-old plain view doctrine, the court said inadvertent discovery ″is not a necessary condition.″

The two keys to whether such warrantless seizures are constitutional, the court said, are that an item’s incriminating character be immediately apparent and police had lawful authority to be where the item was found.

″Even though inadvertence is a characteristic of most legitimate ‘plain view’ seizures, it is not a necessary condition,″ Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

Justices William J. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented. Brennan wrote for the two that such seizures by police violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures.

″The court today ignores the explicit language of the Fourth Amendment, which protects possessory interest in the same manner as it protects privacy interests,″ Brennan said.

The decision upheld the criminal conviction of Terry Brice Horton, sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for the 1985 holdup of Erwin Paul Wallaker, the treasurer of a San Jose coin club.

Wallaker was returning home from a coin show with two briefcases containing $10,000 in cash and $20,000 worth of coins.

He was accosted by two people wearing Halloween masks who stunned him with an electrical device and robbed the cash, coins and his jewelry.

Wallaker told police he recognized Horton’s voice, a distinct Southern drawl.

The police searched Horton’s home and found, among other things, two stun guns. But the court warrant authorizing the search of Horton’s home mentioned only the cash, coins and jewelry - not the weapons.

While searching for the robbery’s proceeds, which they did not find, police officers found the stun guns out in plain view.

California courts allowed the guns to be used as evidence against Horton, and those rulings were upheld today.

″The items seized from (Horton’s) home were discovered during a lawful search authorized by a valid warrant,″ Stevens wrote for the court.

He added: ″When they were discovered, it was immediately apparent to the officer that they constituted incriminating evidence. He had probable cause ... to believe that the weapons ... had been used in the crime he was investigating. The seizure was authorized by the plain view doctrine.″

The case is Horton vs. California, 88-7164.

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