Open Fields

2012-08-13 11:30:20

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement of ‘‘persons, houses, papers, and effects.’’ When officers enter property that is outside someone’s home, any Fourth Amendment concerns center on whether this property falls within ‘‘curtilage’’ or ‘‘open fields.’’ The Supreme Court has held that open fields fall outside the protection of the Fourth Amendment, while curtilage is protected. Law enforcement officers can lawfully enter and search an open field without a warrant.

Open fields can include unoccupied or undeveloped land, even wooded areas, outside the curtilage, the area generally associated with and surrounding the home. Common law distinguished the two by considering curtilage an extension of a person’s home and thus his privacy; open fields were generally considered accessible to the public. In Hester v. United States, the Court found that the Fourth Amendment did not protect open fields because they are neither ‘‘houses’’ nor ‘‘effects’’ within the amendment’s meaning. In later reaffirming Hester, the Court additionally noted a person could not legitimately expect that his activities would be private in open fields. A search, in Fourth Amendment terms, does not occur unless a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched. While posting a ‘‘No Trespassing’’ sign may protect common law property rights, the Court found that this has no bearing on whether Fourth Amendment protections apply.

Because the open fields doctrine is a bright-line rule, later cases have considered how to define the extent of the curtilage by determining whether the area is intimately connected to the home.


References and Further Reading

  • California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986).
  • Dressler, Joshua. Understanding Criminal Procedure. 3rd ed. Newark, NJ: LexisNexis Publishing, 2002.
  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure: Criminal Practice Series. Vol. 2. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 1999).
  • Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984).
  • Saltzburg, Stephen A., Another Victim of Illegal Narcotics: The Fourth Amendment (as Illustrated by the Open Fields Doctrine), University of Pittsburgh Law Review 48 (1986): 1–25.
  • United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987).

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Hester v. United States, 265 U.S. 57 (1924)

See also Exclusionary Rule; Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445 (1989); Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); Plain View; Search (General Definition)