This is an audio case brief of United States v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986)..The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents


On September 2, 1982, Santa Clara Police received an anonymous telephone tip that marijuana was growing in Ciraolo’s backyard. Police were unable to observe the contents of his yard from ground level because the yard was completely enclosed by  a 6-foot outer fence and a 10-foot inner fence. Later that day, Officer Shutz, who was assigned to investigate, secured a private plane and flew over Ciraolo’s house at an altitude of 1,000 feet, within navigable airspace. He was accompanied by Officer Rodriguez. Both officers were trained in marijuana identification. From the overflight, the officers readily identified marijuana plants 8 feet to 10 feet in height growing in a 15- by 25-foot plot in Ciraolo’s yard. Th officers took pictures of the area.

Six days later, Officer Shutz obtained a search warrant on the basis of an affidavit describing the anonymous tip and their observations. A photograph depicting Ciraolo’s house, the backyard, and neighboring homes was attached to the affidavit as an exhibit. The warrant was executed the next day and 73 plants were seized. It is not disputed that these were marijuana.

After the trial court denied Ciraolo’s motion to suppress the evidence of the search, he plead guilty to a charge of cultivation of marijuana. The California Court of Appeal reversed on the ground that the warrantless aerial observation of Ciraolo’s yard which led to the issuance of the warrant violated the Fourth Amendment.

The U.S Supreme court granted certiorari.


The issue is whether the Fourth Amendment is violated by aerial observation without a warrant from an altitude of 1,000 feet of a fenced-in backyard within the curtilage of a home.


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 found that Ciraolo had a subjective expectation of privacy.

The court explained: Clearly—and understandably—Ciraolo has met the test of manifesting his own subjective intent and desire to maintain privacy as to his unlawful agricultural pursuits. It can reasonably be assumed that the 10-foot fence was placed to conceal the marijuana crop from at least street-level views. So far as the normal sidewalk traffic was concerned, this fence served that purpose, because Ciraolo took normal precautions to maintain his privacy.

Next the court turned to the second prong of the Katz test, which asks whether the defendant’s expectation is reasonable.

Here the court found that Ciraolo’s expectation of privacy was not one that society was willing to recognize as reasonable.

The court stated stated that, in pursuing this inquiry, we must keep in mind that  the test of legitimacy is not whether the individual chooses to conceal assertedly ‘private’ activity,” but instead “whether the government’s intrusion infringes upon the personal and societal values protected by the Fourth Amendment.”

Defendant argued that because his yard was in the curtilage of his home, no governmental aerial observation is permissible under the Fourth Amendment without a warrant.

But the court disagreed.

But first the court acknowledge that the area of the home that was observed by the officers fell within the curtilage.

The court explained that protection afforded the curtilage is essentially a protection of families and personal privacy in an area intimately linked to the home, both physically and psychologically, where privacy expectations are most heightened. The claimed area here was immediately adjacent to a suburban home, surrounded by high double fences. This close nexus to the home would appear to encompass this small area within the curtilage. Accepting, as the State does, that this yard and its crop fall within the curtilage, the question remains whether naked-eye observation of the curtilage by police from an aircraft lawfully operating at an altitude of 1,000 feet violates an expectation of privacy that is reasonable.

However, the fact that the area is within the curtilage does not itself bar all police observation. The Fourth Amendment protection of the home has never been extended to require law enforcement officers to shield their eyes when passing by a home on public thoroughfares. Nor does the mere fact that an individual has taken measures to restrict some views of his activities preclude an officer’s observations from a public vantage point where he has a right to be and which renders the activities clearly visible. What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection

The observations by Officers Shutz and Rodriguez in this case took place within public navigable airspace, in a physically nonintrusive manner.  From this point they were able to observe plants readily discernible to the naked eye as marijuana. That the observation from aircraft was directed at identifying the plants and the officers were trained to recognize marijuana is irrelevant. Such observation is precisely what a judicial officer needs to provide a basis for a warrant. Any member of the public flying in this airspace who glanced down could have seen everything that these officers observed.


Ciraolo’s expectation that his garden was protected from such observation is unreasonable and is not an expectation that society is prepared to honor.

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