We’ve talked so many times here about the death of the Fourth Amendment, particularly in the war on drugs. It has been trashed over and over again from every direction.
We haven’t talked much about “plain view.” Plain view is the notion that if an officer sees something illegal sitting out in plain view, it’s perfectly OK for him to charge you with it. So, if you’ve been robbed and you invite a police officer into your home to show him that your piggy bank was broken open, and there are twelve severed heads on the counter, the officer isn’t required to ignore them â€” they are in plain view and now you’re going to be charged with some heinous crime.
However, that’s not how plain view normally works. Officers work hard to get themselves into position where they can see as much as possible in an attempt to go fishing.
Terry v. Ohio, followed by Michigan v. Long, allowed police to pat people down, and even do a routine search of a car in certain situations for the safety of the officer to insure that there are no weapons present. (I wonder how often people detained by officers are able to dive back into their car and grab a weapon.) Of course, if they find drugs, well, that just happened to be in plain view, while they were searching for tiny guns which might be hidden inside film canisters [is that a dated reference?].
If you open the door to your house when police knock and they see something illegal through the open door (or through your window), they can act.
Just this past month, the 9th Circuit made a particularly bad ruling in United States v. Lemus, holding that when police arrested a man outside his house, the police had the authority to sweep inside the house to make sure there was nothing there to endanger them!
Thanks to Fourth Amendment.com, we give you the powerful words in dissent of Chief Judge Kozinski…
This is an extraordinary case: Our court approves, without blinking, a police sweep of a personâ€™s home without a warrant, without probable cause, without reasonable suspicion and without exigencyâ€”in other words, with nothing at all to support the entry except the curiosity police always have about what they might find if they go rummaging around a suspectâ€™s home. Once inside, the police managed to turn up a gun â€œin plain viewâ€â€”stuck between two cushions of the living room couchâ€”and we reward them by upholding the search.
Did I mention that this was an entry into somebodyâ€™s home, the place where the protections of the Fourth Amendment are supposedly at their zenith? The place where the â€œgovernment bears a heavy burden of demonstrating that exceptional circumstances justif[y] departure from the warrant requirement.â€ United States v. Licata, 761 F.2d 537, 543 (9th Cir. 1985). The place where warrantless searches are deemed â€œpresumptively unreasonable.â€ Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980).
Government encroachment into the home, which I lamented three years ago in United States v. Black, 482 F.3d 1044, 1045-46 (9th Cir. 2007) (Kozinski, J., dissenting from the denial of rehearing en banc), has continued, abetted by the creative collaborators of the courts. This is another example: The panel goes to considerable lengths to approve a fishing expedition by four police officers inside Lemusâ€™s home after he was arrested just outside it. The opinion misapplies Supreme Court precedent, conflicts with our own case law and is contrary to the great weight of authority in the other circuits. It is also the only case I know of, in any jurisdiction covered by the Fourth Amendment, where invasion of the home has been approved based on no showing whatsoever. Nada. Gar nichts. Rien du tout. Bupkes.
Whatever may have been left of the Fourth Amendment after Black is now gone. The evisceration of this crucial constitutional protector of the sanctity and privacy of what Americans consider their castles is pretty much complete. Welcome to the fish bowl.
. . .
3. How has it come to this? Thereâ€™s a simple answer: Plain view is killing the Fourth Amendment. Because our plain view case law is so favorable to the police, they have a strong incentive to maneuver into a position where they can find things in plain view, or close enough to lie about it.
This is a case in point. While the officers were finishing their room-to-room sweep of Lemusâ€™s apartment, apparently finding no one and nothing suspicious, the detectives entered as well. Yet Buie permits only a sweep for people who might be dangerous. Once the officers found no one in the living room, what authorized entry by the detectives? There was absolutely no reason for the detectives to enter except to try to find contraband in â€œplain view.â€ So, the detectives went in and, while there, Diaz thought he saw â€œsomething sticking out from the couchâ€ that â€œlooked like the butt of a weapon.â€ Lemus, 582 F.3d at 960. Longoria then lifted the couch cushion â€œto make sureâ€ and found a gun. Id. at 961. Under what theory of â€œplain viewâ€ may police lift cushions off a couch to make sure something is contraband? Why werenâ€™t the officers required to get a warrantâ€”if they couldâ€”based on what they saw, before rummaging through the couch?
. . .
Plain view encourages the police to find every possible loophole to get themselves into a place where they can take a good look around, discover some evidence and then get a warrant to seize what they already know is there. This tiresome two-step is the new dropsy evidence. As often as not, the chance of hitting the plain-view jackpot is what drives the police into a manâ€™s house, his doctorâ€™s office or his ISP. Carefully drawn limitations in a warrant and narrow justifications for exceptions to the warrant requirement are becoming afterthoughts. â€œPolice officer safety,â€ the narrow justification in Buie, had nothing to do with this search. Gathering evidence did. We should not abet such skirting of the Fourth Amendment by the police; it only encourages them to do worse.
Powerful words. The sad part is that Kozinski is in the minority in our courts.