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California v. Ciraolo - 476 U.S. 207, 106 S. Ct. 1809 (1986)


The touchstone of U.S. Const. amend. IV analysis is whether a person has a constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy, as articulated in Katz. Katz posits a two-part inquiry: first, has the individual manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged search? Second, is society willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable? As to this second inquiry under Katz, the test of legitimacy is 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 U.S. Const. amend. IV.


The Santa Clara, California police received an anonymous telephone tip that marijuana was growing in respondent Ciraolo's backyard, which was enclosed by a 6-foot outer fence and a 10-foot inner fence, making it impossible to observe anything from ground level. Officers who were trained in marijuana identification secured a private airplane, flew over Ciraolo's house at an altitude of 1,000 feet, and readily identified marijuana plants growing in the yard. A search warrant was later obtained on the basis of one of the officer's naked-eye observations; a photograph of the surrounding area taken from the airplane was attached as an exhibit. The warrant was executed, and marijuana plants were seized. At Ciraolo's subsequent criminal prosecution in state court, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the search, which was denied by the trial court. Ciraolo pleaded guilty to a charge of cultivation of marijuana. The California Court of Appeal, First District, reversed, holding that the warrantless aerial surveillance of the curtilage of Ciraolo's home violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. The court distinguished cases allowing warrantless aerial surveillance of open fields and ruled that the height and existence of the fences demonstrated Ciraolo's reasonable expectation of privacy by any standard, and found it significant that the surveillance had not been the result of a routine patrol but had been conducted for the express purpose of observing this enclosure within Ciraolo's curtilage. The State of California petitioned for writ of certiorari.


Was the warrantless aerial surveillance of Ciraolo's property a violation of the Fourth Amendment?




On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourth Amendment was not violated by the naked-eye aerial observation of Ciraolo's backyard. The Court clarified that although Ciraolo's yard was within the curtilage of his home, such did not bar police observation. The Court stated that Fourth Amendment protection of the home had never been extended to require law enforcement officers to shield their eyes when passing by a home on public thoroughfares. Nor did the mere fact Ciraolo had erected a 10-foot fence around his yard preclude an officer's observations from a public vantage point where he had a right to be and which rendered activities clearly visible. Ciraolo's expectation that his yard was protected from all observation was unreasonable and not an expectation that society was prepared to honor.

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