California v. Ciraolo

California v. Ciraolo

U.S. Supreme Court
476 U.S. 207 (1986)

ISSUE: Did police violate D's 4th Amdt. protection against warrantless searches when they flew over D's house at 1000 feet and observed marijuana plants growing in his yard only because police could not see them from the ground due to the two fences D erected there?
HOLDING: No, the 4th Amdt. does not require that police traveling in the public airways at 1000 feet need obtain a warrant in order to observe what is visible to the naked eye.
FACTS:
  • Police received a tip that D was growing marijuana in his backyard
  • Police could not see the marijuana plants from the ground because there were two fences: one 8 feet tall and the other 10 feet tall
  • Two officers then flew over D's house at 1000 feet in a plane and photographed his yard
RULES:
  • Test of legitimacy of expectation (Oliver): Not whether the individual chooses to conceal assertedly private activity, but instead whether the government's intrusion infringes upon the personal and societal values protected by the 4th Amdt.
  • Curtilage doctrine: At common law, the curtilage is the area to which extends the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man's home and the privacies of life
  • Katz - Harlan concurrence: Objects, activities, or statements that one exposes to the "plain view" of outsiders are not protected because no intention to keep them to himself has been exhibited
REASONING:
  • Subjective expectation of privacy satisfied: By D erecting the two fences, he presumably manifested his subjective intent and desire to maintain the privacy of what he was growing in his backyard
    • Unclear if D has a subjective expectation of privacy from all observations of his backyard or just a mere hope
  • Within curtilage: Close nexus of yard to home means that it was encompassed w/i the curtilage
  • But not necessarily barred from police observation: Just because the growing area was w/i the curtilage does not mean that it was barred from police observation
    • What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of 4th Amdt. protection
    • Any member of the public looking down from public airspace could have seen the plants growing
    • Not a reasonable expectation of privacy that society is prepared to honor

DISSENT - Powell:

  • Majority ignores Justice Harlan's warning that reasonable expectations of privacy may be defeated by electronic as well as physical invasion
  • No explanation given for why visibility from the air deprives one of his privacy interest
  • The home is almost always a place where one's subjective expectation of privacy will be legitimate
    • Per Oliver, society accepts as reasonable citizens' expectations of privacy in the area immediately surrounding their homes
  • The risk that a plane passenger will observe something in one's yard is simply too trivial to protect because the glimpse of the landscape is fleeting and anonymous
    • People don't knowingly expose their residential yards to the public merely by failing to build barriers to aerial surveillance
  • If the police cannot observe the yard from the ground without warrant, they should not be able to do the same from the air

 

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