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California v. Ciraolo

The Liability Of Open Airspace

Although the opinion of dissenting Supreme Court justices made a compelling argument, a slim majority of justices elected to rule that the police had not conducted an unreasonable search and seizure and had not violated the respondent's Fourth Amendment rights. In direct disagreement with their colleagues and the written opinion of the California Court of Appeal, the majority disagreed that there was a significant distinction between regular police patrol and focused observations on the respondent's home. In his written opinion, Chief Justice Burger reasoned that like any other person who had flown over the respondent's home, police officers saw an obvious violation of the law. The Fourth Amendment could, therefore, not protect the respondent even if the respondent made clear that he wanted to remain "untouchable" in his privacy. As with all public places, air space is open for everybody; police could not neglect the obvious fact that the respondent was breaking the law by illegally cultivating marijuana. That the police officers who conducted the aerial observation had been trained in drug search and seizure was irrelevant because they simply had seen an illegal act that could have been seen by anybody else during an overflight. Regardless of whether the respondent erected a six-foot fence around his property and another ten-foot fence around the marijuana, the majority opinion agreed with the state of California's argument that, in effect, the respondent had "knowingly" exposed his yard to public view.

Chief Justice Burger agreed that the Fourth Amendment of U.S. Constitution was written to protect people and their privacy. However, citing precedent in Hester v. United States (1924), he pointed out that the Fourth Amendment did not protect "open fields" and that an individual could not expect outdoor privacy except in the area immediately surrounding the home. Further, privacy could not be expected if activities were visible from the outside even if the area was enclosed with a high fence in order to restrict ground-level view. There was still no reasonable expectation of privacy from naked eye inspection if taken from open, navigable airspace--an airplane could not be considered a device of advancing technology because the fact of air flight is routine.

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