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Case Basics
Docket No. 
(By appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the respondent)
(Argued the cause for the petitioner)
Facts of the Case 

The Santa Clara Police received an anonymous tip that Ciraolo was growing marijuana in his back yard. Unable to observe the yard from the ground due to a high fence which encircled it, the police secured a private plane and flew over Ciraolo's house at an altitude of 1,000 feet. The fly-over confirmed the presence of marijuana. The police then obtained a search warrant, seized 73 plants on the next day, and arrested Ciraolo who then pleaded guilty to the cultivation of marijuana. The California Court of Appeals, however, found that the aerial observation was illegal and reversed Ciraolo's conviction.


Did the warrantless, aerial observation of Ciraolo's back yard from an altitude of 1,000 feet constitute an illegal search and violate the Fourth Amendment?

Decision: 5 votes for California, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 4: Fourth Amendment

The divided Court found that the observation did not violate the Constitution. Chief Justice Burger reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protections regarding the home had never been absolute: for example, police officers are not obligated to shield their eyes when passing homes on public streets or sidewalks. Since the observations of the Santa Clara officers was "nonintrusive" and "took place within public navigable airspace," their actions were consistent with the Fourth Amendment. "Any member of the public flying in this airspace who glanced down could have seen everything that these officers observed," concluded Burger. The dissenters, led by Justice Powell, argued that this decision was a significant departure from the Court's holding in Katz v. United States (1967) which established a two-part test to evaluate privacy claims.

Cite this Page
CALIFORNIA v. CIRAOLO. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 31 August 2015. <>.
CALIFORNIA v. CIRAOLO, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 31, 2015).
"CALIFORNIA v. CIRAOLO," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 31, 2015,