California v. Ciraolo

PETITIONER: California
LOCATION: Ciraolo's Residence

DOCKET NO.: 84-1513
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 476 US 207 (1986)
ARGUED: Dec 10, 1985
DECIDED: May 19, 1986

Laurence K. Sullivan - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Marshall Warren Krause - By appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

The Santa Clara Police received an anonymous tip that Ciraolo was growing marijuana in his back yard. Unable to observe the yard from the ground due to a high fence which encircled it, the police secured a private plane and flew over Ciraolo's house at an altitude of 1,000 feet. The fly-over confirmed the presence of marijuana. The police then obtained a search warrant, seized 73 plants on the next day, and arrested Ciraolo who then pleaded guilty to the cultivation of marijuana. The California Court of Appeals, however, found that the aerial observation was illegal and reversed Ciraolo's conviction.


Did the warrantless, aerial observation of Ciraolo's back yard from an altitude of 1,000 feet constitute an illegal search and violate the Fourth Amendment?

Media for California v. Ciraolo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 10, 1985 in California v. Ciraolo

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in California against Ciraolo.

Mr. Sullivan, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Laurence K. Sullivan:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, this case is here on a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the State of California First Appellate District.

That Court reversed a judgment of the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Santa Clara convicting the respondent in this case, Dante Carlo Ciraolo, of marijuana cultivation, a felony in our state.

This case provides an opportunity for the Court to consider a fourth amendment issue relating to aerial observation which a very important tool used by a number of states as well as the federal government to detect and locate marijuana cultivation throughout this country.

California contends that warrant is not required for police to see what is knowingly exposed in a yard, fenced or not, to anyone who cares to look from navigable air space.

The facts in this case, Your Honors, are that the police received an anonymous complaint that marijuana could be seen growing in a yard at a home in the city of Santa Clara.

An officer went by the house on foot, and from the street he saw a rear fence which had bamboo stakes attached to the top of it elevating the fence up to ten feet.

The officers undertook air observation from an airplane at an altitude of not less than 1,000 feet of ground level, and navigated through air traffic in a flight line with the San Jose, California, airport.

Without visual or optical aids, the officers observed in the back yard at 15-by-25-foot marijuana garden which was composed, according to the officers' affidavit, of plants that he described as

"full and approximately eight to ten feet tall. "

The officers from the aircraft took a photograph.

They later obtained a search warrant, and they seized a total of 73 cultivated marijuana plants.

The respondent Ciraolo pled guilty in the trial court after unsuccessfully moving to suppress all the evidence resulting from the aerial observation, and as permitted by California law, he appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals.

In reversing that, the appellate court held that the aerial observation was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, and the California Supreme Court denied a hearing.

The ultimate issue in this case is, as in the companion case, Dow, whether Ciraolo had an expectation of privacy against aerial observation of his garden that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.

Our position in this case is straightforward.

When a person's property is concealed from public view, then the fact of its possession is private, but if property is in public view, it is in no sense private, and hence it is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.

Ciraolo's garden, whatever else one can say about it, was knowingly exposed to the scrutiny, the observation, the identification, if you will, of literally anyone in aircraft above or around his property.

Harry A. Blackmun:

I take it the curtilage aspect is immaterial.

Laurence K. Sullivan:

In this case, Your Honor, it wouldn't matter if it was in the open field.

It wouldn't matter if it was in the curtilage.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Well, it isn't in the open field, hut it is, as you say, open to view from above.

Do you contest the fact that it was in the curtilage?

Laurence K. Sullivan:


William H. Rehnquist:

What do you understand the word "curtilage" to signify?

Laurence K. Sullivan:

My answer, Your Honor, is Ciraolo's yard.

And that is the short answer.

You can take various definitions of it.