California v. Ciraolo 1986

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California v. Ciraolo 1986

Petitioner: State of California

Respondent: Dante Carlo Ciraolo

Petitioner's Claim: That the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by searching Ciraolo's backyard from an airplane without a warrant.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Laurence K. Sullivan, Deputy Attorney General of California

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Marshall Warren Krause

Justices for the Court: Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr.

Date of Decision: May 19, 1986

Decision: The Supreme Court said the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Significance: With Ciraolo, the Supreme Court said people in enclosed yards cannot expect privacy from air traffic above.

A person's right to privacy is guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment requires any searches and seizures by the government to be reasonable. In most cases, law enforcement officers must get a warrant to search a house or other private place for evidence of a crime. To get a warrant, officers must have probable cause, or believe the place to be searched has evidence of a crime.

In Oliver v. United States (1984), the Supreme Court said people can expect privacy not just inside their houses, but in the curtilage too. The curtilage is the yard that a person encloses or considers to be private. Because the curtilage is private, law enforcement officers usually must have a warrant and probable cause to search it. In California v. Ciraolo, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the police violated the Fourth Amendment by searching a backyard from an airplane without a warrant.

Flying Low

Dante Carlo Ciraolo lived in Santa Clara, California. On September 2, 1982, Santa Clara police received an anonymous tip that Ciraolo was growing marijuana in his backyard. The police could not see the backyard from the ground because Ciraolo enclosed it with a six-foot outer fence and a ten-foot inner fence. Later that day, Officer Shutz hired a private plane to fly him and Officer Rodriguez over Ciraolo's backyard at an altitude of 1,000 feet.

Shutz and Rodriguez both were trained in marijuana identification. From the airplane they saw marijuana plants growing eight- to ten-feet high in a fifteen-by-twenty-five-foot plot. The officers photographed Ciraolo's backyard and those of surrounding neighbors. Six days later they used the photographs and their observations to get a warrant to search Ciraolo's entire house and yard. During the search they seized seventy-three marijuana plants.

Florida charged Ciraolo with cultivating, or growing, marijuana. At his trial, Ciraolo asked the court to suppress, or get rid of, the marijuana evidence against him. When the government violates the Fourth Amendment, it may not use the evidence it finds to convict the defendant. Ciraolo said Officers Shutz and Rodriguez violated the Fourth Amendment by searching his backyard from an airplane without a warrant.

The trial court denied Ciraolo's motion, so he pleaded guilty to the charge against him and appealed to the California Court of Appeals. That court reversed his conviction, saying the police violated the Fourth Amendment. Faced with having to dismiss its case against Ciraolo, California took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

High Court Rules

With a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and ruled in favor of California. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said the Fourth Amendment only protects reasonable expectations of privacy. By putting a fence around his yard, Ciraolo had a reasonable expectation that nobody would invade his privacy from the ground.


T hree years after deciding Ciraolo, the Supreme Court decided another case involving aerial surveillance. In Florida v. Riley, police used a helicopter to hover 400 feet over a greenhouse that had two panels missing from its roof. From the helicopter they were able to see and photograph marijuana plants through the open panels. At his trial for possession of marijuana, Michael A. Riley asked the court to suppress the marijuana evidence because the police violated the Fourth Amendment.

The trial court ruled in Riley's favor, but the Supreme Court reversed. Relying on its decision in Ciraolo, the Court said Riley could not expect privacy from helicopters hovering above his greenhouse. In a dissenting opinion, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., warned that the Court was creating a dictatorial society such as George Orwell described in his novel 1984:

The black-mustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. . . . In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, swooping into people's windows.

Ciraolo did not, however, cover his yard from the airspace above. It was unreasonable for Ciraolo to think that nobody would see his yard from airplanes and other flying machines. After all, public airplanes were allowed to fly over Ciraolo's yard at the same height flown by Officers Shutz and Rodriguez. Quoting from a prior Supreme Court case, Burger said, "What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection."

Because Ciraolo could not expect privacy from above his backyard, the police did not need a warrant to search from the airplane. "The Fourth Amendment simply does not require the police traveling in the public airways at this altitude to obtain a warrant to observe what is visible to the naked eye."

Low Down Dirty Shame

Four justices dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., wrote a dissenting opinion. He said Ciraolo did all he needed to do to protect privacy in his backyard by erecting fences. The Court's decision called Ciraolo's privacy expectation reasonable on the ground but unreasonable from the air. That meant police could not use a ladder to see into Ciraolo's yard, but they could use an airplane.

Powell said that in reality, public and commercial airplane passengers cannot see backyards very well from the air. That means people do not expect invasions of privacy from airplanes. The police were able to see Ciraolo's backyard only because they hired a plane that positioned them to see the marijuana plot. Letting them do that without a search warrant was unfaithful to privacy, which is what the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect.

Suggestions for further reading

Franklin, Paula A. The Fourth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Mikula, Mark, and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Great American Court Cases. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.

Persico, Deborah A. Mapp v. Ohio: Evidence and Search Warrants. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Shattuck, John H.F. Rights of Privacy. Skokie: National Textbook Co., 1977.

Wetterer, Charles M. The Fourth Amendment: Search and Seizure. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

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California v. Ciraolo 1986

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California v. Ciraolo 1986