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Law School Case Brief

Kyllo v. United States - 533 U.S. 27, 121 S. Ct. 2038 (2001)


Fourth Amendment search does not occur, even when the explicitly protected location of a house is concerned, unless the individual manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged search and society is willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable.


On the basis of a suspicion that marijuana was being grown inside a home, an agent of the United States Department of the Interior decided to use a thermal imaging device to scan the building to determine whether the amount of heat emanating from the home was consistent with use of the high-intensity lamps typically required for growing marijuana indoors. The scan, which took only a few minutes, was performed at 3:20 a.m. from the passenger seat of the agent's vehicle across the street from the front of, and also from the street in back of, the home. The scan showed that the roof over the garage and a side wall of the home were relatively hot compared to the rest of the home and substantially warmer than neighboring homes, and the agent correctly concluded that the homeowner was using halide lights to grow marijuana in the house. Based on tips from informants, utility bills, and the thermal imaging, a federal magistrate judge issued a warrant authorizing a search of the home, and agents found an indoor growing operation involving more than 100 plants. The homeowner, defendant Danny Lee Kyllo, was indicted on one count of manufacturing marijuana. At trial in federal district court, the court denied Kyllo's motion to suppress the seized evidence, and Kyllo entered a conditional guilty plea. On appeal, the appellate court vacated Kyllo's conviction and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing regarding the intrusiveness of thermal imaging. On remand, the district court upheld the validity of the warrant and reaffirmed the denial of the motion to suppress, finding that the particular device used: (1) was a non-intrusive device which emitted no rays or beams, (2) showed a crude visual image of the heat being radiated from the outside of the house, (3) did not show any people or activity within the walls of the structure, (4) could not penetrate walls or windows to reveal conversations or human activities, and (5) did not allow observation of intimate details of the home. On appeal, the appellate court concluding that: (1) Kyllo had shown no subjective expectation of privacy, as he had made no attempt to conceal the heat escaping from his home; and (2) there was no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy, because the thermal imaging device did not expose any intimate details of Kyllo's life, but rather only amorphous hot spots on the roof and exterior wall. Kyllo's petition for a writ of certiorari was granted to determine whether the thermal-imaging was a search under U.S. Const. amend. IV.


Was thermal-imaging considered a search under U.S. Const. amend. IV?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the appellate court's judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings. The Court concluded that obtaining information regarding the interior of a home, which could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area, such as Kyllo's private residence, constituted a search, at least where the technology was not in general public use. Since thermal imaging technology was not in general public use, such a surveillance was a search and was presumptively unreasonable without a warrant. Whether the search warrant was supported by probable cause without the surveillance evidence was for the trial court to determine in the first instance.

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