This is an audio case brief of Oliver v United states, 466 U.S. 170 (1984). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents


The Kentucky police department received report that Ray Oliver was growing marijuana on his farm. Two Kentucky state police officers were assigned to investigate the reports. When the officers arrived at the farm, they drove past Oliver’s house to a locked gate with a “No Trespassing” sign. A footpath led around one side of the gate. The agents walked around the gate and along the road for several hundred yards. They passed a barn and a parked camper. At that point, someone standing in front of the camper shouted: “No hunting is allowed, come back up here.” The officers shouted back that they were Kentucky State Police officers. But the officers found no one when they returned to the camper. The officers resumed their investigation of the farm and found a field of marijuana over a mile from Oliver’s home.

Oliver was arrested and indicted for “manufacturing” a “controlled substance.” After a pretrial hearing, the District Court suppressed evidence of the discovery of the marijuana field. Applying Katz v. United States, the court found that Oliver had a reasonable expectation that the field would remain private because Oliver “had done all that could be expected of him to assert his privacy in the area of farm that was searched.”

He had posted “No Trespassing” signs at regular intervals and had locked the gate at the entrance to the center of the farm. Additionally, the court noted that the field itself is highly secluded. It is bounded on all sides by woods, fences, and embankments and cannot be seen from any point of public access. The court concluded that this was not an “open” field that invited casual intrusion.

Procedural history

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, reversed the District Court’s decision. The court concluded that Katz, upon which the District Court relied, had not impaired the vitality of the open fields doctrine. Rather, the open fields doctrine was entirely compatible with Katz’ emphasis on privacy. The court reasoned that the “human relations that create the need for privacy do not ordinarily take place” in open fields, and that the property owner’s common-law right to exclude trespassers is insufficiently linked to privacy to warrant the Fourth Amendment’s protection.

The U.S. Supreme court granted certiorari to review Oliver’s case.


This issue is whether the government’s intrusion upon the open fields is  one of those “unreasonable searches” proscribed by the text of the Fourth Amendment.


The special protection accorded by the Fourth Amendment to the people in their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects,’ is not extended to the open fields.


The touchstone of the  Fourth Amendment analysis has been the question of whether a person has a “constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy.” The Amendment does not protect the merely subjective expectation of privacy, but only those expectations that society is prepared to recognize as ‘reasonable.’ No single factor determines whether an individual legitimately may claim under the Fourth Amendment that a place should be free of government intrusion that is not authorized by warrant. In assessing the degree to which a search infringes upon individual privacy, the Court has given weight to such factors as the intention of the Framers of the Fourth Amendment, the uses to which the individual has put a location, and our societal understanding that certain areas deserve the most scrupulous protection from government invasion.

An individual may not legitimately demand privacy for activities conducted out of doors in fields, except in the area immediately surrounding the home. This rule is true to the conception of the right to privacy embodied in the Fourth Amendment. The Amendment reflects the recognition of the Framers that certain enclaves should be free from arbitrary government interference. For example, the Court since the enactment of the Fourth Amendment has stressed “the overriding respect for the sanctity of the home that has been embedded in our traditions since the origins of the Republic.”

In contrast, open fields do not provide the setting for those intimate activities that the Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance. There is no societal interest in protecting the privacy of those activities, such as the cultivation of crops, that occur in open fields. Moreover, as a practical matter these lands usually are accessible to the public and the police in ways that a home, an office, or commercial structure would not be. It is not generally true that fences or “No Trespassing” signs effectively bar the public from viewing open fields in rural areas. And  Oliver conceded that the public and police lawfully may survey lands from the air. For these reasons, the asserted expectation of privacy in open fields is not an expectation that “society recognizes as reasonable.

Nor is the government’s intrusion upon an open field a “search” in the constitutional sense because that intrusion is a trespass at common law. The existence of a property right is but one element in determining whether expectations of privacy are legitimate. “ ‘The premise that property interests control the right of the Government to search and seize has been discredited. Even a property interest in premises may not be sufficient to establish a legitimate expectation of privacy with respect to particular items located on the premises or activity conducted thereon.

The common law may guide consideration of what areas are protected by the Fourth Amendment by defining areas whose invasion by others is wrongful. The law of trespass, however, forbids intrusions upon land that the Fourth Amendment would not proscribe. For trespass law extends to instances where the exercise of the right to exclude vindicates no legitimate privacy interest. Thus, in the case of open fields, the general rights of property protected by the common law of trespass have little or no relevance to the applicability of the Fourth Amendment.


The court held that the government’s intrusion upon the open fields is not one of those “unreasonable searches” proscribed by the text of the Fourth Amendment.

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