United States v. Dunn

Facts of the Case

In 1980, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, having discovered that one Carpenter had bought large quantities of chemicals and equipment used to make controlled substances, placed tracking beepers in some of the equipment and one of the chemical containers, which, when transported in Carpenter’s truck, led the agents to defendant Ronald Dale Dunn’s ranch. Aerial photographs of the ranch showed the truck backed up to a barn behind the ranch house. The ranch was completely encircled by a perimeter fence, and contained several interior barbed wire fences, including one around the house approximately 50 yards from the barn, and a wooden fence enclosing the front of the barn, which had an open overhang and locked, waist-high gates. Without a warrant, officers crossed the perimeter fence, several of the barbed wire fences, and the wooden fence in front of the barn. They were led there by the smell of chemicals, and, while there, could hear a motor running inside. They did not enter the barn but stopped at the locked gate and shined a flashlight inside, observing what they took to be a drug laboratory. They then left the ranch, but entered it twice the next day to confirm the laboratory’s presence. They obtained a search warrant and executed it, arresting Dunn and seizing chemicals and equipment, as well as bags of amphetamines they discovered in the house. At trial in federal district court, Dunn filed a motion to suppress all evidence seized pursuant to the warrant. The district court denied the motion, and thereafter Dunn and Carpenter were convicted of conspiracy to manufacture controlled substances and related offenses. On Dunn’s appeal, the appellate court reversed his conviction finding that the evidence should have been suppressed because it was seized pursuant to the unlawful warrantless entry. The appellate court also found that the barn was within the protective ambit of the


Is a search warrant needed to peer into the open side of a barn that is located in a field on private property?


No. Justice Byron R. White, writing for a 7-2 majority, reversed the court of appeals. The Supreme Court held that the barn and the area around it lay outside the protected area of curtilage around Dunn’s house. The barn was separated from the house by a fence and was a substantial distance away from the house, the officers had other data that lead them to suspect Dunn, and Dunn did little to protect the barn from observation. Even if Dunn did have a reasonable expectation of privacy, the search still did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the officers never entered the barn. Justice Antonin Scalia concurred, writing that the officers perception of the way Dunn used the barn was not as important as the way the barn actually was used.Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. dissented, arguing that the barn was within the area of protected curtilage, and the officers violated Dunn’s reasonable expectation of privacy because the barn was an essential part of Dunn’s business. Justice Thurgood Marshall joined in the dissent.

Case Information

  • Citation: 480 US 294 (1987)
  • Argued: Jan 20, 1987
  • Decided Mar 3, 1987Granted: Jun 23, 1986