Oliver v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

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

Facts of the case

“These are two consolidated cases involving the discovery of open marijuana fields as the result of unwarranted searches of privately owned land.In the first case, Kentucky State police searched Ray E. Oliver’s farm, acting on reports that marijuana was grown there. A gate marked with a “”No Trespassing”” sign surrounded the field. Police found marijuana in the field about a mile from Oliver’s home. Before trial, the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky suppressed evidence found in the search on the ground that Oliver had a reasonable expectation that his field would remain private. This expectation triggered the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed under the open field doctrine. The open field doctrine states that a citizen’s protection from unwarranted search does not extend to open fields.In the second case, police searched the woods behind Richard Thornton’s property after an anonymous tip. Police found two marijuana patches on Thornton’s land. The Maine Superior Court granted Thornton’s motion to suppress evidence found in the search for the same reasons as the Oliver case. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Main affirmed.”


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 ‘expectations 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 the 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.



  • Case Brief: 1984
  • Petitioner: Oliver
  • Respondent: United States
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 466 US 170 (1984)
Argued: Nov 9, 1983
Decided: Apr 17, 1984