Brief Fact Summary. An officer acting on anonymous tip observed marijuana in the interior of a respondent Riley’s partially covered greenhouse from the vantage point of a helicopter.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. An officer’s naked eye observation of the interior of a partially covered greenhouse in a residential backyard from the vantage point of a helicopter 400 feet above did not constitute a search requiring a warrant.
Issue. Are naked-eye observations of the curtilage of a property made from a helicopter 400 feet in the air a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment for which a warrant must be obtained?
Held. No. Reverse the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court suppressing the evidence.
There is no reasonable expectation that the contents of the respondent’s greenhouse were protected from public or official inspection from the air since he left its roof open.
No evidence was produced that helicopters flying at this altitude are illegal or sufficiently rare.
Since these observations were not a search pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, the fact that they were made without a warrant is not fatal to their admissibility.
Dissent. Justice William Brennan said that someone does not knowingly expose an area to the public just because a helicopter can legally fly above it. He believed there was a reasonable expectation of privacy for the greenhouse in this situation.
Justice Harry Blackmun gave his opinion that the disagreement between members of the court on whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy centered on the frequency of nonpolice helicopters flying at this altitude.
Concurrence. Justice Sandra O’Connor stated that the majority emphasized too much the fact that the helicopter’s flying at 400 feet was in compliance with FAA regulations. The only consideration in deciding whether a warrant was necessary she stated, should be whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the greenhouse.
Discussion. Respondent’s greenhouse was within the curtilage of the home but still the majority held this surveillance to not be a search because he had no reasonable expectation of privacy. This was a closely decided, 5-4 case that hinged mainly on the judgment call of whether any expectation of privacy in a greenhouse with openings in its ceiling was reasonable. The majority believed it was not.