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 Amendment.
  • 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 at.
      • 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 feet.”
    • 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?