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Oliver v. United States

Citation. 466 U.S. 170, 104 S. Ct. 1735, 80 L. Ed. 2d 214 (1984)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Police officers found a marijuana field growing about a mile away from an individual’s home.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

“[A]n individual may not legitimately demand privacy for activities conducted out of doors in fields, except in the area immediately surrounding the home.”


Two narcotics officers went to a farm to investigate the growing of marijuana. When the officers arrived at the farm they saw a “No Trespassing” sign. The officers walked around a gate and continued on for several hundred yards. They heard a voice that said “no hunting is allowed, come back up here”, but did not find anybody. The officers eventually found the marijuana field over a mile from the Petitioner, Oliver’s home (the “Petitioner”).
The Petitioner was arrested for manufacturing a controlled substance. The District Court suppressed the evidence of the discovery of the marijuana field. The court concluded that was not an open field inviting casual intrusion. The Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court. The Supreme court granted certiori.
A second case from Maine had very similar facts and the Supreme Court also granted certiori.


Is the “open fields” doctrine still viable?


The court observed that in [Hester v. United States] “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 distinction between the latter and the house is as old as the common law.” Further, the majority concluded “as did the Court in deciding [Hester v. United States], that the government’s intrusion upon the open fields is not one of those ‘unreasonable searches’ proscribed by the text of the Fourth Amendment.”
“Since [Katz v. United States], the touchstone of [Fourth] Amendment analysis has been the question 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 ‘expectation[s] 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 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. These factors are equally relevant to determining whether the government’s intrusion upon open fields without a warrant or probable cause violates reasonable expectations of privacy and is therefore a search proscribed by the Amendment.”
“In this light, the rule of [Hester v. United States], that we reaffirm today, may be understood as providing that 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 both [the] petitioner [ ] and respondent Thornton concede 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.’ ”
The majority concluded “[t]he historical underpinnings of the open fields doctrine also demonstrate that the doctrine is consistent with respect for ‘reasonable expectations of privacy.’ As Justice Holmes, writing for the Court, observed in Hester, the common law distinguished ‘open fields’ from the ‘curtilage,’ the land immediately surrounding and associated with the home.”
“The test of legitimacy is not whether the individual chooses to conceal assertedly ‘private’ activity. Rather, the correct inquiry is whether the government’s intrusion infringes upon the personal and societal values protected by the Fourth Amendment. As we have explained, we find no basis for concluding that a police inspection of open fields accomplishes such an infringement.” “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.”
“We conclude that the open fields doctrine, as enunciated in Hester, is consistent with the plain language of the Fourth Amendment and its historical purposes. Moreover, Justice Holmes’ interpretation of the Amendment in Hester accords with the ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ analysis developed in subsequent decisions of this Court.”


Justice Marshall, Justice Brennan and Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion. They could not agree that “(i) the Court argues that, because the Fourth Amendment by its terms renders people secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” it is inapplicable to trespasses upon land not lying within the curtilage of a dwelling; and (ii) the Court contends that “an individual may not legitimately demand privacy for activities conducted out of doors in fields, except in the area immediately surrounding the home.” Instead, they conclude “[p]rivate land marked in a fashion sufficient to render entry thereon a criminal trespass under the law of the State in which the land lies is protected by the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures.”


It is interesting to read the majority and dissenting opinions along side one another to see how the justices reach opposite conclusions.

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