Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445 (1989)

Florida v. Riley considered whether helicopter surveillance constituted a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, such that a warrant would be required. In the plurality opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court, holding that the Fourth Amendment did not require police traveling in the public airways (in legal airspace) at an altitude of 400 feet to obtain a warrant to observe what was visible to the naked eye.

After an anonymous tip that respondent was growing marijuana, a sheriff’s officer circled over the property in a helicopter flying at 400 feet. With his naked eye, he was able to see through openings in the roof and sides of the greenhouse. After he identified what he thought was marijuana, he obtained a search warrant to confirm his observations.

The Court relied on California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986), a similar case involving a police inspection from a fixed wing aircraft at 1,000 feet. There, the Court held that the viewing was not a search subject to the Fourth Amendment even though the occupant had a subjective expectation of privacy. A home and its curtilage are not necessarily protected from inspection that involves no physical invasion. ‘‘What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.’’ Ciraolo, 476 U.S. at 213 (citing Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351 (1967)). As long as the police are ‘‘where [they have] a right to be,’’ Ciraolo, 476 U.S. at 213, they need not obtain a warrant.

EMILY FROIMSON

Cases and Statutes Cited

California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986)

Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351 (1967)

See also Electronic Surveillance, Technological Monitoring, and Dog Sniffs

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