Skip to main content

California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986)


The Santa Clara, Cal., police received an anonymous telephone tip that marijuana was growing in respondent’s backyard, which was enclosed by two fences and shielded from view at ground level. Officers who were trained in marijuana identification secured a private airplane, flew over respondent’s house at an altitude of 1,000 feet, and readily identified marijuana plants growing in the yard. A search warrant was later obtained on the basis of one of the officer’s naked-eye observations; a photograph of the surrounding area taken from the airplane was attached as an exhibit. The warrant was executed, and marijuana plants were seized. After the California trial court denied respondent’s motion to suppress the evidence of the search, he pleaded guilty to a charge of cultivation of marijuana. The California Court of Appeal reversed on the ground that the warrantless aerial observation of respondent’s yard violated the Fourth Amendment.

Held: The Fourth Amendment was not violated by the naked-eye aerial observation of respondent’s backyard. Pp. 476 U. S. 211-215.

(a) The touchstone of Fourth Amendment analysis is whether a person has a constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy, which involves the two inquiries of whether the individual manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged search, and whether society is willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable. Ratz v. United States, 389 U. S. 347. In pursuing the second inquiry, the test of legitimacy is not whether the individual chooses to conceal assertedly “private activity,” but whether the government’s intrusion infringes upon the personal and societal values protected by the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 476 U. S. 211-212.

(b) On the record here, respondent’s expectation of privacy from all observations of his backyard was unreasonable. That the backyard and its crop were within the “curtilage” of respondent’s home did not itself bar all police observation. The mere fact that an individual has taken measures to restrict some views of his activities does not preclude an officer’s observation from a public vantage point where he has a right to be and which renders the activities clearly visible. The police observations here took place within public navigable airspace, in a physically nonintrusive manner. The police were able to observe the plants

Page 476 U. S. 208

readily discernible to the naked eye as marijuana, and it was irrelevant that the observation from the airplane was directed at identifying the plants and that the officers were trained to recognize marijuana. Any member of the public flying in this airspace who cared to glance down could have seen everything that the officers observed. The Fourth Amendment simply does not require police traveling in the public airways at 1,000 feet to obtain a warrant in order to observe what is visible to the naked eye. Pp. 476 U. S. 212-215.

161 Cal. App. 3d 1081, 208 Cal. Rptr. 93, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O’CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 476 U. S. 215.