Print this Page
Case Basics
Docket No. 
Ray E. Oliver
United States
No. 82-1273
(on behalf of the Respondent Thornton)
(on behalf of the Petitioner Maine)
(on behalf of the Petitioner Oliver)
(on behalf of the Respondent United States)
Facts of the Case 

These are two consolidated cases involving the discovery of open marijuana fields as the result of unwarranted searches of privately owned land.

In the first case, Kentucky State police searched Ray E. Oliver’s farm, acting on reports that marijuana was grown there. A gate marked with a “No Trespassing” sign surrounded the field. Police found marijuana in the field about a mile from Oliver’s home. Before trial, the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky suppressed evidence found in the search on the ground that Oliver had a reasonable expectation that his field would remain private. This expectation triggered the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed under the open field doctrine. The open field doctrine states that a citizen’s protection from unwarranted search does not extend to open fields.

In the second case, police searched the woods behind Richard Thornton’s property after an anonymous tip. Police found two marijuana patches on Thornton’s land. The Main Superior Court granted Thornton’s motion to suppress evidence found in the search for the same reasons as the Oliver case. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Main affirmed.


Does the open field doctrine apply when police officers knowingly enter privately owned fields without a warrant?

Decision: 6 votes for United States, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 4: Fourth Amendment

Yes. In a 6-3 vote, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote for the majority, stating that the open field doctrine applies to both cases. Individuals cannot legitimately expect privacy for activities conducted out in the open except in the area immediately surrounding their house. Also, the act of police officers entering a privately owned field is not automatically a search for Fourth Amendment purposes even if it is a common law trespass. Oliver’s case was affirmed, and Thornton’s was reversed and remanded.

Justice Byron White wrote a special concurrence, saying that there was no need for the majority to deal with the expectation of privacy issue because a field is clearly not a “house” or an “effect” under the Fourth Amendment. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a dissent, contending that the law should protect private land that is marked as such against unreasonable searches and seizures. Justice William J. Brennan and Justice John P. Stevens joined Justice Marshall’s dissent.

Cite this Page
OLIVER v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 29 July 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1983/1983_82_15>.
OLIVER v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1983/1983_82_15 (last visited July 29, 2015).
"OLIVER v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed July 29, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1983/1983_82_15.