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Law School Case Brief

Oliver v. United States - 466 U.S. 170, 104 S. Ct. 1735 (1984)


The open fields doctrine is consistent with respect for "reasonable expectations of privacy." The common law has distinguished "open fields" from the "curtilage," the land immediately surrounding and associated with the home. The distinction implies that only the curtilage, not the neighboring open fields, warrants the Fourth Amendment protections that attach to the home. At common law, the curtilage is the area to which extends the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man's home and the privacies of life and therefore has been considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. Thus, courts have extended Fourth Amendment protection to the curtilage; and they have defined the curtilage, as did the common law, by reference to the factors that determine whether an individual reasonably may expect that an area immediately adjacent to the home will remain private. Conversely, the common law implies that no expectation of privacy legitimately attaches to open fields. 


Two actions were consolidated on writs of certiorari. In the first case, acting on reports that marihuana was being raised on petitioner Ray E. Oliver's farm, narcotics agents of the Kentucky State Police went to the farm to investigate. Arriving at the farm, they drove past Oliver's house to a locked gate with a "No Trespassing" sign, but with a footpath around one side. The agents then walked around the gate and along the road and found a field of marihuana over a mile from Oliver's house. Oliver was arrested and indicted for manufacturing a controlled substance in violation of a federal statute. At trial in federal district court, Oliver's motion to suppress the evidence of the marihuana field was granted, the district  court holding that that the field was private and that it was not an "open" field that invited casual intrusion. On appeal, the appellate court reversed, holding that the open fields doctrine was applicable, which permitted police officers to enter and search a field without a warrant. Oliver was granted a writ of certiorari.

In the second case, after receiving a tip that marihuana was being grown in the woods behind respondent Richard Thornton's residence, police officers entered the woods by a path between the residence and a neighboring house, and followed a path through the woods until they reached two marihuana patches fenced with chicken wire and having "No Trespassing" signs. Later, the officers, upon determining that the patches were on Thornton's property, obtained a search warrant and seized the marihuana. Thornton's was then arrested and indicted. At trial in Maine state court, the trial court granted Thornton's motion to suppress the fruits of the second search, holding that the initial warrantless search was unreasonable, that the "No Trespassing" signs and secluded location of the marihuana patches evinced a reasonable expectation of privacy, and that the open fields doctrine did not apply. The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine affirmed. The State was granted a writ of certiorari.


Did the open fields doctrine permit police officers to enter and search marijuana fields without a warrant where the fields were secluded and contained no-trespassing signs?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the decision in Oliver's case and reversed and remanded the decision in Thornton's case. The Court held that the open fields doctrine applied in both cases and, as such, the discovery or seizure of the marihuana in question was valid. Because the Court found that there was no reasonable or legitimate expectation of privacy in open fields, the officers' actions in entering such open fields without a warrant or probable cause did not violate the Constitution. Because privacy for outdoor activities conducted in fields only extended to the area immediately surrounding the home, the Court affirmed the validity of the open fields doctrine. 

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