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

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

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

Florida v. Riley

No. 87-764

Argued October 3, 1988

Decided January 23, 1989

488 U.S. 445

Syllabus

A Florida county sheriff's office received an anonymous tip that marijuana was being grown on respondent's property. When an investigating officer discovered that he could not observe from Found level the contents of a greenhouse on the property -- which was enclosed on two sides and obscured from view on the other, open sides by trees, shrubs, and respondent's nearby home -- he circled twice over the property in a helicopter at the height of 400 feet and made naked-eye observations through openings in the greenhouse roof and its open sides of what he concluded were marijuana plants. After a search pursuant to a warrant obtained on the basis of these observations revealed marijuana growing in the greenhouse, respondent was charged with possession of that substance under Florida law. The trial court granted his motion to suppress the evidence. Although reversing, the State Court of Appeals certified the case to the State Supreme Court on the question whether the helicopter surveillance from 400 feet constituted a "search" for which a warrant was required under the Fourth Amendment. Answering that question in the affirmative, the court quashed the Court of Appeals' decision and reinstated the trial court's suppression order.

Held: The judgment is reversed.

511 So.2d 282, reversed.

JUSTICE WHITE, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE SCALIA, and JUSTICE KENNEDY, concluded that the Fourth Amendment does not require the police traveling in the public airways at an altitude of 400 feet to obtain a warrant in order to observe what is visible to the naked eye. California v. Ciraolo,476 U. S. 207 -- which held that a naked-eye police inspection of the backyard of a house from a fixed-wing aircraft at 1,000 feet was not a "search" -- is controlling. Thus, respondent could not reasonably have expected that the contents of his greenhouse were protected from public or official inspection from the air, since he left the greenhouse's sides and roof partially open. The fact that the inspection was made from a helicopter is irrelevant, since, as in the case of fixed-wing planes, private and commercial flight by helicopter is routine. Nor, on the facts of this case, does it make a difference for Fourth Amendment purposes that the helicopter was flying below 500 feet, the Federal Aviation Administration's lower limit upon the navigable airspace for fixed-wing craft. Since the FAA permits helicopters to fly

Page 488 U. S. 446

below that limit, the helicopter here was not violating the law, and any member of the public or the police could legally have observed respondent's greenhouse from that altitude. Although an aerial inspection of a house's curtilage may not always pass muster under the Fourth Amendment simply because the aircraft is within the navigable airspace specified by law, there is nothing in the record here to suggest that helicopters flying at 400 feet are sufficiently rare that respondent could have reasonably anticipated that his greenhouse would not be observed from that altitude. Moreover, there is no evidence that the helicopter interfered with respondent's normal use of his greenhouse or other parts of the curtilage, that intimate details connected with the use of the home or curtilage were observed, or that there was undue noise, wind, dust, or threat of injury. Pp. 488 U. S. 449-452.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR concluded that the plurality's approach rests the scope of Fourth Amendment protection too heavily on compliance with FAA regulations, which are intended to promote air safety, and not to protect the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Whether respondent had a reasonable expectation of privacy from aerial observation of his curtilage does not depend on whether the helicopter was where it had a right to be, but, rather, on whether it was in the public airways at an altitude at which members of the public travel with sufficient regularity that respondent's expectation was not one that society is prepared to recognize as "reasonable." Because there is reason to believe that there is considerable public use of airspace at altitudes of 400 feet and above, and because respondent introduced no evidence to the contrary before the state courts, it must be concluded that his expectation of privacy here was not reasonable. However, public use of altitudes lower than 400 feet -- particularly public observations from helicopters circling over the curtilage of a home -- may be sufficiently rare that police surveillance from such altitudes would violate reasonable expectations of privacy, despite compliance with FAA regulations. Pp. 488 U. S. 452-455.

WHITE, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 488 U. S. 452. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 488 U. S. 456. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 488 U. S. 467.

Page 488 U. S. 447

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