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Law School Case Brief

Florida v. Riley - 488 U.S. 445, 109 S. Ct. 693 (1989)


Inspection by air is not a search subject to the U.S. Const. amend. IV. The yard is within the curtilage of the house, a fence shields the yard from observation from the street, and the occupant had a subjective expectation of privacy. However, such an expectation was not reasonable and not one that society is prepared to honor. The home and its curtilage are not necessarily protected from inspection that involves no physical invasion. What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. As a general proposition, the police may see what may be seen from a public vantage point where they have a right to be. Thus the police, like the public, would have been free to inspect the backyard garden from the street if their view had been unobstructed. They were likewise free to inspect the yard from the vantage point of an aircraft flying in the navigable airspace.


The police flew over a greenhouse located on defendant's property in a helicopter at 400 feet, looked into the greenhouse and saw marijuana. The police then obtained a search warrant for the greenhouse and seized the marijuana. The trial court suppressed the marijuana, the court of appeals reversed, and the state supreme court quashed the appellate court decision and reinstated the trial court's suppression order.


Did surveillance of the interior of a partially covered greenhouse in a residential backyard from the vantage point of a helicopter located 400 feet (120 m) above the greenhouse constitute 'search' for which a warrant is required under the Fourth Amendment and Article I, 12 of the Florida Constitution?




The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Florida Supreme Court with a four-vote plurality, arguing that the accused did not have a reasonable expectation that the greenhouse was protected from aerial view, and thus that the helicopter surveillance did not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Court stopped short of allowing all aerial inspections of private property, noting that it was "of obvious importance" that a private citizen could have legally flown in the same airspace.

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