Arizona v. Hicks

Following is the case brief for Arizona v. Hicks, United States Supreme Court, (1987)

Case summary for Arizona v. Hicks:

  • Hicks shot a gun through the floor of his apartment and responding officers searched the apartment for the victim, the shooter and weapons.
  •  The officers noticed expensive equipment, which they confirmed was stolen after moving the item to retrieve its serial number.
  • The equipment was seized and Hicks was charged with robbery, but the trial court granted his motion to suppress after Hicks alleged the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • The Court held that in order for the plain view doctrine to apply, police must establish probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of allegedly stolen equipment.

Arizona v. Hicks Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

The defendant shot a gun through the floor of his apartment which injured the man living under him. Upon investigating the shooting and seizing three weapons, officers noticed expensive stereo equipment and moved one of the pieces so they could check the serial number. After contacting one of the officers at headquarters, the officers were able to confirm that the equipment was stolen. In response, the officers seized the stolen items and had a warrant issued to search the other pieces of equipment.

Procedural History:

Hicks was indicted for the robbery, although the trial court granted his motion to suppress the evidence. The state court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision and the state appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

For a search without a warrant to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the plain view doctrine can be invoked to search or seize evidence that the police have probable cause regarding the incriminating nature of the evidence.

Issue and Holding:

Must an officer establish probable cause in order to invoke the plain view doctrine? Yes.


The Court held that the search was unconstitutional absent probable cause.


  • The plain view doctrine requires probable cause to be established prior to the search or seizure of a piece of evidence.

The Fourth Amendment protects equally against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the doctrine, police may seize evidence without a warrant when they observe incriminating evidence in plain view. An officer is also permitted to search items by moving them for closer inspection, but, probable cause must first be established in order to invoke the plain view doctrine for search absent a warrant.

Warrantless searches and seizures are presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. There is no justification why an exception to the warrant requirement should require a standard less than probable cause.

Here, the officer’s searching the equipment equated to a Fourth Amendment search since his actions permitted him to observe and record information that was not in plain view. Searching the equipment was not related to the initial lawful purpose of investigating the shooting.  In addition, the search does not fall under the scope of the plain view doctrine since the responding officer failed to establish probable cause showing the equipment was stolen.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (Powell):

The Court’s holding will prevent officers from lawfully retrieving evidence. It results in the creation of a rule that reading a serial number in plain view is constitutional while moving an object a mere couple of inches to see the serial number is unconstitutional.

Dissenting (O’Connor):

A “cursory inspection” of potential evidence that an officer has reasonable suspicion to believe is illegal should be constitutional. This case presents the issue of whether probable cause is needed prior to the police conducting a passing inspection of an item in their plain view. Here, Hicks privacy interest is outweighed by the governmental interest in law enforcement.


This decision set the precedent that “probable cause” operates as a separate limitation to the “plain view” doctrine. The doctrine, permits officers to seize evidence found during a warrantless search when the material is in the officer’s plain view. 

Student Resources: