Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971)

Defendant was suspected of killing a 14-year old girl. Officers obtained a warrant to arrest and search the defendant’s home and car. However, the warrant was signed by the attorney general who was not a neutral party to the case. The court therefore found the warrant to be invalid.

The state nevertheless argued that the seizure and search of the defendants vehicle was not a violation of the fourth amendment because the vehicle was in plain view.

Held: the court held that the plain view exception did not apply because the officers had ample time to secure a valid warrant.

Table of Contents



Pamela Mason, a 14-year-old girl, left her home in Manchester, New Hampshire, on the evening of January 13, 1964. She left during a heavy snowstorm, apparently in response to a man’s telephone call for a babysitter. Eight days later, after a thaw, her body was found by the site of a major north-south highway several miles away. She had been murdered. The event created great alarm in the area, and the police immediately began a massive investigation.

On January 28, having learned from a neighbor that, Edward Coolidge, had been away from home on the evening of the girl’s disappearance, the police went to his house to question him.

During the ensuing two and a half weeks, the State accumulated a quantity of evidence to support the theory that it Coolidge who had killed Pamela Mason. 

On February 19, the results of the investigation were presented at a meeting between the police officers working on the case and the State Attorney General, who had personally taken charge of all police activities relating to the murder, and was later to serve as chief prosecutor at the trial. At this meeting, it was decided that there was enough evidence to justify the arrest of Coolidge on the murder charge and a search of his house and two cars. The  warrants were prepared and presented to the attorney general. The attorney General himself, acting as a justice of the peace signed and issued the warrants.

About two and a half hours after Coolidge had been taken into custody his cars were towed to the police station. It appears that at the time of the arrest the cars were parked in the Coolidge driveway, and that although dark had fallen they were plainly visible both from the street and from inside the house where Coolidge was actually arrested. One of the cars was searched and vacuumed on February 21, two days after it was seized, and again a year later, in January 1965, and a third time in April 1965.

His motion to suppress some evidence including those obtained from the car was denied. Coolidge was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

He appealed his convictions


Whether the search and seizure Coolidges car which was in plain view violates his fourth amendment rights.


Where an officer is in a place where he has the right to be, or where an officer has a warrant to search a given area for specific items and in the course of the search comes across other items of incriminating nature in plain view, seizure of such items does not violate the fourth amendment.


Because the attorney general, who was not a neutral party to the case, signed the warrants, the court found that warrant to be invalid under the fourth amendment.

The state however argued that a warrantless search and seizure of the car was justified because the car itself was an ‘instrumentality of the crime,’ and as such might be seized by the police on Coolidge’s property because it was in plain view.

Although the court agreed with the plain view doctrine, the court found that the doctrine was inapplicable in this case.

Here is how the court explained the rational behind the plain view doctrine.

The court stated that It is well established that under certain circumstances the police may seize evidence in plain view without a warrant. But it is important to keep in mind that, in the vast majority of cases, any evidence seized by the police will be in plain view, at least at the moment of seizure. 

The problem with the ‘plain view’ doctrine has been to identify the circumstances in which plain view has legal significance rather than being simply the normal concomitant of any search, legal or illegal.

An example of the applicability of the ‘plain view’ doctrine is the situation in which the police have a warrant to search a given area for specified objects, and in the course of the search come across some other article of incriminating character. Also, where the initial intrusion that brings the police within plain view of such an article is supported, not by a warrant, but by one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, the seizure is also legitimate. Thus the police may inadvertently come across evidence while in ‘hot pursuit’ of a fleeing suspect. And an object that comes into view during a search incident to arrest that is appropriately limited in scope under existing law may be seized without a warrant. Finally, the ‘plain view’ doctrine has been applied where a police officer is not searching for evidence against the accused, but nonetheless inadvertently comes across an incriminating object. 

What the ‘plain view’ cases have in common is that the police officer in each of them had a prior justification for an intrusion in the course of which he came inadvertently across a piece of evidence incriminating the accused. The doctrine serves to supplement the prior justification—whether it be a warrant for another object, hot pursuit, search incident to lawful arrest, or some other legitimate reason for being present unconnected with a search directed against the accused—and permits the warrantless seizure. Of course, the extension of the original justification is legitimate only where it is immediately apparent to the police that they have evidence before them. The ‘plan view’ doctrine may not be used to extend a general exploratory search from one object to another until something incriminating at last emerges. 

The limits on the doctrine are implicit in the statement of its rationale. The first of these is that plain view alone is never enough to justify the warrantless seizure of evidence. This is simply a corollary of the familiar principle discussed above, that no amount of probable cause can justify a warrantless search or seizure absent ‘exigent circumstances.’ Incontrovertible testimony of the senses that an incriminating object is on premises belonging to a criminal suspect may establish the fullest possible measure of probable cause. But even where the object is contraband, this Court has repeatedly stated and enforced the basic rule that the police may not enter and make a warrantless seizure.

In applying this rule to this particular case the court found that the plain view exception was not applicable because the police had ample time to secure a warrant to search the car. 

Here is how the court explained its position:

In the light of what has been said, it is apparent that the ‘plain view’ exception cannot justify the police seizure of the Pontiac car in this case. The police had ample opportunity to obtain a valid warrant; they knew the automobile’s exact description and location well in advance; they intended to seize it when they came upon Coolidge’s property. And this is not a case involving contraband or stolen goods or objects dangerous in themselves.


The search and seizure of the car was invalid because the plain view exception was inapplicable to the facts of this case.

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