This is an audio case brief of Florida v. Riely, 488 U.S. 445 (1989).The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents


Michael Riley lived in a mobile home located on five acres of rural property. A greenhouse was located 10 to 20 feet behind the mobile home. Two sides of the greenhouse were enclosed. The other two sides were not enclosed but the contents of the greenhouse were obscured from view from surrounding property by trees, shrubs, and the mobile home. The greenhouse was covered by corrugated roofing panels, some translucent and some opaque. At the time relevant to this case, two of the panels, amounting to approximately 10% of the roof area, were missing. A wire fence surrounded the mobile home and the greenhouse, and the property was posted with a “DO NOT ENTER” sign.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s office received an anonymous tip that marijuana was being grown on Riley’s property. When an investigating officer discovered that he could not see the contents of the greenhouse from the road, he circled twice over Riley’s property in a helicopter at the height of 400 feet. With his naked eye, he was able to see through the openings in the roof and one or more of the open sides of the greenhouse. And he identified what he thought was marijuana growing in the structure.

Based on these observation, the officer obtained a warrant and the ensuing search revealed marijuana growing in the greenhouse. Riley was subsequently charged with possession of marijuana under Florida law.

The trial court granted his motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the search. The Florida Court of Appeals however reversed  but certified the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which quashed the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s suppression order.

The case eventually made it to the U.S Supreme court.


Whether surveillance of the interior of a partially covered greenhouse in a residential backyard from the vantage point of a helicopter located 400 feet above the greenhouse constitutes a ‘search’ for which a warrant is required under the Fourth Amendment and Florida law.


According to Katz v United states whether a person has a constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy depends on a two prong test. The individual must manifest a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged search. And secondly, society must be willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable.


The court acknowledge that its decision previous decision in California v Ciraolo was controlling in this case.

In Ciraolo, Police officers received a tip that marijuana was being grown on the defendants backyard. In response to the tip, the police inspected the back-yard of  the defendant’s house while flying in a fixed-wing aircraft at 1,000 feet. With the naked eye the officers saw what they concluded was marijuana growing in the yard. A search warrant was obtained on the strength of this airborne inspection, and marijuana plants were found. There the court held that the inspection was not a search subject to the Fourth Amendment. The court recognized that the yard was within the curtilage of the house, that a fence shielded the yard from observation from the street, and that the occupant had a subjective expectation of privacy. However, the court found that such an expectation was not reasonable and not one “that society is prepared to honor. The court reasoned that, what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. The police may see from a public vantage point where, they have right to be, what the defendant knowingly exposes to the public. 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 as this plane was. In an age where private and commercial flight in the public airways is routine, it was unreasonable for the defendant to expect that his marijuana plants were constitutionally protected from being observed with the naked eye from an altitude of 1,000 feet.

Like Ciraolo the property surveyed was within the curtilage of Riley’s home. Riley no doubt intended and expected that his greenhouse would not be open to public inspection, and the precautions he took protected against ground-level observation. However, because the sides and roof of his greenhouse were left partially open, what was growing in the greenhouse was subject to viewing from the air. Under the holding in Ciraolo, Riley could not reasonably have expected the contents of his greenhouse to be immune from examination by an officer seated in a fixed-wing aircraft flying in navigable airspace at an altitude of 1,000 feet or, as the Florida Supreme Court seemed to recognize, at an altitude of 500 feet, the lower limit of the navigable airspace for such an aircraft. Here, the inspection was made from a helicopter, but as is the case with fixed-wing planes, private and commercial flight by helicopter in the public airways is routine in this country, and there is no indication that such flights are unheard of in Pasco County, Florida. Riley could not reasonably have expected that his greenhouse was protected from public or official observation from a helicopter had it been flying within the navigable airspace for fixed-wing aircraft.

Additionally. it make no difference for Fourth Amendment purposes that the helicopter was flying at 400 feet when the officer saw what was growing in the greenhouse through the partially open roof and sides of the structure. We would have a different case if flying at that altitude had been contrary to law or regulation. Any member of the public could legally have been flying over Riley’s property in a helicopter at the altitude of 400 feet and could have observed Riley’s greenhouse. The police officer did no more. This is not to say that an inspection of the curtilage of a house from an aircraft will always pass muster under the Fourth Amendment simply because the plane is within the navigable airspace specified by law. But it is of obvious importance that the helicopter in this case was not violating the law, and there is nothing in the record or before us to suggest that helicopters flying at 400 feet are sufficiently rare in this country to lend substance to Riley’s claim that he reasonably anticipated that his greenhouse would not be subject to observation from that altitude. Neither is there any intimation here that the helicopter interfered with respondent’s normal use of the greenhouse or of other parts of the curtilage. As far as this record reveals, no intimate details connected with the use of the home or curtilage were observed, and there was no undue noise, and no wind, dust, or threat of injury. In these circumstances, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment.


Although Riley had a subjective expectation of privacy, that expectation was not one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. The judgement of the Florida Supreme Court was therefore reversed.

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