Florida v. Riley 488 U.S. 445, 109 S. Ct. 693, 102 L. Ed.2d 835 (1989)
Riley owned a greenhouse.
Someone gave the police a tip that Riley was growing marijuana.
A police helicopter flew
overhead at a pretty low altitude and the pilot looked through a hole in
the roof of the greenhouse and saw that he was growing drugs.
The plants were not visible
from the street.
A warrant was issued, Riley's
greenhouse was searched, and he was arrested for drug possession.
At trial, Riley argued that he
had a reasonable expectation of privacy and so there was an unreasonable search and seizure and therefore violated the 4th
The Trial Judge granted the
motion to suppress and dismissed the charged. The prosecutor appealed.
The Appellate Court reversed
and admitted the evidence. Riley appealed.
The Florida Supreme Court
reversed and granted the motion to suppress. The prosecutor appealed.
The US Supreme Court reversed
and found that Riley did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The US Supreme Court found
that "any member of the public" could have flown over the
greenhouse at that altitude and seen the plants. Therefore they were
essentially open to public view.
In a concurring opinion it
was argued that the standard should not be whether the public could fly over Riley's greenhouse at that altitude,
but whether it was common
that they actually did.
The Court rejected Riley's
argument that he had a subjective expectation of privacy and instead
considered whether a reasonable person would have an objective
expectation of privacy.
While the US Supreme Court
found that in this instance there was no violation, it would be possible
for there to be a violation in other circumstances.
If the police helicopter
was flying at an altitude that the general public was not allowed to fly
If the flight interfered in
the normal use of the property (by kicking up dust and making noise).
In a dissent, it was argued
that unless it could be shown that ordinary citizens were regularly in the
air above Riley's greenhouse, he would have an expectation of privacy.
The reasonableness of
Riley's expectation of privacy depends, in large measure, on the
frequency of non-police helicopter flights at an altitude of 400
The dissenters disagreed on
whether the burden of proof lay with Riley or with the State. Who is
responsible for putting on evidence about how common the flights are?
You could argue that this
situation was similar to having a police officer stand on a public road
and look through a window.
Would it make a difference
if it was a very isolated road that few people ever used?
Compare this case to California
v. Greenwood (486 U.S. 35). In that
case, the police were rummaging through a suspect's garbage. People don't
ordinarily have their garbage rummaged through, but that search was
considered ok by the courts.
Compare to Kyllo v. United
States (533 U.S. 27) where the police
used an expensive thermal imaging camera to search for drugs. In that
case the court found that just because something is possible for ordinary
people to have/use, that doesn't make it ok for the police to use it.