Oliver v. United States
Decided on Apr. 17, 1984; 466 US 170


A. Issues Discussed: Search and seizure

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the "open fields" doctrine permit police officers to enter and search a field without a warrant if the field is surrounded fences and "No Trespassing" signs?


A. Background:

"No. 82-15. Acting on reports that marihuana was being raised on the farm of petitioner Oliver, two narcotics agents of the Kentucky State Police went to the farm to investigate. Arriving at the farm, they drove past petitioner's house to a locked gate with a 'No Trespassing' sign. A footpath led around one side of the gate. The agents walked around the gate and along the road for several hundred yards, passing a barn and a parked camper. At that point, someone standing in front of the camper shouted: 'No hunting is allowed, come back up here.' The officers shouted back that they were Kentucky State Police officers, but found no one when they returned to the camper. The officers resumed their investigation of the farm and found a field of marihuana over a mile from petitioner's home.

Petitioner was arrested and indicted for 'manufactur[ing]' a 'controlled substance.' After a pretrial hearing, the District Court suppressed evidence of the discovery of the marihuana field... The court found that petitioner had a reasonable expectation that the field would remain private because petitioner 'had done all that could be expected of him to assert his privacy in the area of farm that was searched.' He had posted 'No Trespassing' signs at regular intervals and had locked the gate at the entrance to the center of the farm. Further, the court noted that the field itself is highly secluded: it is bounded on all sides by woods, fences, and embankments and cannot be seen from any point of public access. The court concluded that this was not an 'open' field that invited casual intrusion.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed the District Court.

No. 82-1273. After receiving an anonymous tip that marihuana was being grown in the woods behind respondent Thornton's residence, two police officers entered the woods by a path between this residence and a neighboring house. They followed a footpath through the woods until they reached two marihuana patches fenced with chicken wire. Later, the officers determined that the patches were on the property of respondent, obtained a warrant to search the property, and seized the marihuana. On the basis of this evidence, respondent was arrested and indicted.

The trial court granted respondent's motion to suppress the fruits of the second search. The warrant for this search was premised on information that the police had obtained during their previous warrantless search, that the court found to be unreasonable. 'No Trespassing' signs and the secluded location of the marihuana patches evinced a reasonable expectation of privacy. Therefore, the court held, the open fields doctrine did not apply.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and reversed the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal in No. 82-15 were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California et al. by Eric Neisser, Alan Schlosser, Amitai Schwartz, Joaquin G. Avila, Morris J. Baller, and John E. Huerta; and for the California Farm Bureau Federation et al. by Thomas F. Olson

Frank E. Haddad, Jr., argued the cause for petitioner in No. 82-15. With him on the briefs was Robert L. Wilson. Wayne S. Moss, Assistant Attorney General of Maine, argued the cause for petitioner in No. 82-1273. With him on the briefs were James E. Tierney, Attorney General, James W. Brannigan, Jr., Deputy Attorney General, Robert S. Frank, Assistant Attorney General, and David W. Crook.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance in No. 82-15 were filed for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al. by Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W. Schmidt, and James P. Manak; for the State of California by John K. Van De Kamp, Attorney General, Harley D. Mayfield, Assistant Attorney General, and Jay M. Bloom, Deputy Attorney General

Alan I. Horowitz argued the cause for the United States in No. 82-15. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Jensen, and Deputy Solicitor General Frey. Donna L. Zeegers, by appointment of the Court, argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent in No. 82-1273.


"As Justice Holmes explained for the Court in his characteristically laconic style: '[T]he 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...'

This interpretation of the Fourth Amendment's language is consistent with the understanding of the right to privacy expressed in our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Since Katz v. United States, the touchstone of 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 'expectation[s] 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, supra, 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...

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...

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. The existence of a property right is but one element in determining whether expectations of privacy are legitimate...

The common law may guide consideration of what areas are protected by the Fourth Amendment by defining areas whose invasion by others is wrongful. The law of trespass, however, forbids intrusions upon land that the Fourth Amendment would not proscribe. For trespass law extends to instances where the exercise of the right to exclude vindicates no legitimate privacy interest. Thus, in the case of open fields, the general rights of property protected by the common law of trespass have little or no relevance to the applicability of the Fourth Amendment."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and reversed the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus, urged reversal of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal's judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 3-6 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.