Case Study: Arizona v. Hicks, 408 U.S. 321 (1987)



Case Study: Arizona v. Hicks, 408 U.S. 321 (1987)



Seizing a person for the purposes of conducting an investigation is a serious action. Police officers routinely stop people; briefly detain them, and sometimes even carry out cursory searches of their clothing and person for several different reasons. Hence, the police must have some articulate reason for which they have detained the individual. In this case, the police can invoke the Fourth constitutional Amendment which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures (Cole et al, 2012). Prior to the decision in Arizona v. Hicks, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that an articulate reason was required to bring into play the plain view doctrine. After the Coolidge v. New Hampshire case, the court argued that, in order for a seizure of plain view nature to be legal, the law enforcement agencies must have prior justification for the intrusion. The failure to define that degree of certainty leading to the seizure of a person or the property has caused inconsistency in various courts with some being of the view that sheer suspicion is adequate, while other courts believe that an articulate reason or cause is required. Arizona v. Hicks settled this uncertainty as the degree of certainty that a police officer must have to confiscate items he presumes to be evidence. The Hicks court held that probable cause was the required standard to invoke the plain view doctrine.

Arizona v. Hicks revolves around an illegal entry into a building after a shot fired in that apartment injured a man in a downstairs apartment. The police made their way into the apartment in search of the shooter, weapons, and other victims who might have been caught across the shooting. While in the process of searching the apartment, the law enforcement agencies came across three weapons, ammunition, and a stocking mask. Another officer came across two sets of stereo equipment. Since the equipments were found in a crime scene, the officer suspected that the equipment did not belong to the shooter. For this reason, the officer documented the serial numbers of the various items, including a turntable and a host of other pieces which the officer had to carry them along with him in order to establish and document the serial numbers. After a closer look at the serial numbers, the officer was reliably informed that the stereo equipment was not rightfully acquired by the owner, and he immediately detained the stereo equipment. Subsequently, Hicks was arrested and detained for the robbery of the stereo equipment. In his defence, Hicks argued that the police officer who took the equipment to ascertain the serial number did not have a warranty that would have allowed him to carry out a search in his premises. The Arizona Superior Court ruled in favour of Hicks and the State appealed. The Arizona Court of Appeals confirmed the ruling of the lower court to grant the motion on the fact that the search of the stereo equipment was unlawful because it was not related to the reason as to why the police officers made their way into the building. Both courts discarded the argument of the State that the officer’s actions were justified under the plain view doctrine of Coolidge. The State appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which denied review.

At the Supreme Court level, the court held that the decision of the police officer to move the stereo equipment in order to ascertain the serial numbers amounted to a search distinct from the original justification for entering the apartment. After establishing that indeed there was a search, the court went ahead to determine whether the search was reasonable. The United States Supreme Court held that the search was not reasonable due to the fact that it arose out of a reasonable suspicion, which is a less strict standard than probable cause.





“Plain View” doctrine

Technically, an item in “plain view” cannot be “searched” if the Fourth Amendment is anything to go by. This is because what is exposed for others to see cannot support a legitimate expectation of privacy. Hence, the plain-view doctrine does not meet the requirement that excludes the search warrant requirement. To a certain extent, it allows the police to make a warrantless seizure of items exposed to their view. Nonetheless, the plain-view doctrine is intimately related to the search warrant requirement. Because everything seized by the law enforcement agencies at some point is visible to them, that is; in their “plain view”, limitations must be placed on their authority to be in a position to come across contraband or other incriminating evidence. There are two requirements that must be satisfied to justify a warrantless seizure under the plain-view doctrine. These conditions help to keep “plain view” from being abused to circumvent the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement. To being with, the law enforcement agencies must lawfully be on the premises or in a position to observe items that are discovered in plain view. Secondly, it must be immediately apparent to the law enforcement agencies that the items in plain view can be properly seized. However, there is still contention on whether a third requirement should be met, that is; that the evidence was discovered unintentionally (Gaines & Miller, 2012).

“Good faith” in “plain view” doctrine

A police officer may opt to search an item in plain-view out of good faith or for the greater good. The search may be necessitated by the need of the police officer to ascertain whether the item in question was acquired legally or not. In this case, the police officer may call in to the headquarters to confirm the items are rightfully owned by the person in question. In the event that the disputed item is found to be stolen, the “plain view” doctrine should take its course because the police officer would be within the law to apprehend and take legal action against the “owner” of the property for robbery. The main role of a police officer is to preserve law and order and apprehend those people who are suspected of theft. If a police officer is able to ascertain that a certain property or item is in the wrong hands by coming across the property or item in plain-view, the officer ought to not only be protected by the “plain view” doctrine, but they ought to go ahead and further their search in order to determine whether there are more items that could have found their way into the premises as a result of theft.

As a Chief of Police, I would train my officers not to conduct a search even after coming across some items in plain view. However, the police officer should call in at the headquarters to seek for an immediate warrant while within the premises that would allow them to carry out a lawful search. This is in the event that the police officer suspects that the owner of the premises is of questionable character, and that there are items that could have been acquired through theft. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Arizona v. Hicks case gives a clear indication why police officers should not purport to act in “good faith” even if they feel compelled to carry out a random search. Hence, the police officers should follow the right legal channels while trying to determine whether the items in question could be as a result of theft or not.






Cole, G. F. et al (2012). The American System of Criminal Justice, 13ed. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Gaines, L. K. & Miller, R. L. (2012). Criminal Justice in Action, 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.


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