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California v. Ciraolo

Unresonable Search And Seizure

In presenting the case to the Supreme Court, the respondent's attorney argued that police really did not have a warrant when they flew over his client's home and his curtilage (a small piece of ground next to a house that is usually considered within a person's private domain). The respondent expected to have absolute privacy at his home; his fenced-in home was an obvious sign that he did not want to expose his activities to public scrutiny. He had been subjected to deliberate, unreasonable search and seizure because, the respondent's attorney contended, police officers conducted their fly-over without just cause and with specific intent to collect information about the respondent's activities. In effect, law enforcement had intruded on his privacy.

The arguments presented for the respondent were persuasive and four of the nine justices joined to write an equally compelling dissenting opinion. Writing for the dissenting opinion, Justice Powell expressed great concerned over the possibility that the sanctity of citizens' privacy would be threatened if the Fourth Amendment was strictly interpreted to define unlawful search and seizure as only pertaining to actual, physical entry onto a person's private property. He pointed out that as technology advanced (even beyond air travel), the possibility for authorities to violate the Fourth Amendment without physical entry increased when "reasonable expectations of privacy may be defeated by electronic as well as physical intrusion." Citing Katz v. United States (1967), Justice Powell went on to maintain that when a person shows expectations of privacy, it is reasonable to expect to remain protected from public scrutiny. Further, if there were obvious signs that someone wanted privacy in his yard (for example, fencing in and enclosing a home), society should understand and respect those signs as evidence of a "reasonable" expectation of privacy. Justices, therefore, felt that even though the respondent took precautions to show he had expectations of privacy, police jeopardized that privacy not through direct, physical entry, but indirectly by using a product of modern technology--an airplane. Powell pointed out that the respondent did not "knowingly" expose his curtilage to public scrutiny and that there really was no equity between accidentally noticing illegal activity and gathering photographs during an official, planned air surveillance. Essentially, dissenting justices maintained that people's rights under the Fourth Amendment should be protected whether those rights were jeopardized from the ground or air.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988California v. Ciraolo - Significance, Unresonable Search And Seizure, The Liability Of Open Airspace, Impact