N.D.Ohio: Picking up gun to check SN to run it was not a valid plain view

Picking up defendant’s firearm to see the serial number to check if it was stolen was a search, and it was without probable cause. Obviously, not all guns are stolen. After that, the officer determined that defendant was a felon in possession. This was an invalid plain view because the incriminating character was not immediately appearant. United States v. Thompson, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150309 (N.D.Ohio Aug. 9, 2021):

Thus, most simply put, the decision to pick up the weapon to see if it had a serial number, and if so, to find out whether the gun may have been stolen (and then abandoned) was based on that possibility — not probable cause to believe that such was the case. And he had to seize the weapon to find out whether that suspicion was merited.

That was not enough. Few Fourth Amendment doctrines are more firmly fixed in our law than the principle that what an officer learns after an unlawful seizure does not excuse the initial illegality. See United States v. Pearce, 531 F.3d 374, 381 (6th Cir. 2008). But that, in essence, is what the government asks me to hold here, namely, that because the seizure of the shotgun to check on its status led to learning that the defendant had a felony record, I should overrule the motion to suppress.

In any event, even if the Fourth Amendment allowed Sgt. Shaner to pick up the weapon, observe its serial number, and determine whether it was stolen, that justification expired when he learned the gun was not stolen. But he took the unrelated inquiry as to the defendant’s criminal record.

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