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Open Fields Doctrine Essay

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One of the exceptions to the search and seizure law which enables police officers to conduct warrantless search and seizure proceedings, especially in criminal cases, is the Open Fields Doctrine. Under this doctrine, the owner of any object found out of doors where it could be plainly seen by anybody who is standing on his or her foot, from inside any motor vehicle, or from a low-flying aircraft, could not seek the privacy protection under the Fourth Amendment.

In other words, even if a residential unit is protected by a fence, the ground inside the fence is still considered an “open field” if there are cracks in the fence through which anybody can easily peep and see objects located inside the fence.

The same is true when the fence is low enough for people to see clearly inside the fenced-in ground without the need to stand on their toes or on top of any object in order to have a clear line of sight.

Considered open fields are streets, sidewalks, any bodies of water, outdoor fields, or even the curtilage of a fenced-in residential building as long as said curtilage could be observed by people outside the fence. This doctrine was established by the United States Supreme Court in Hester v. United States where it ruled that the “Fourth Amendment did not protect ‘open fields’ and that, therefore, police searches in such areas as pastures, wooded areas, open water, and vacant lots” are legal even without search warrants (Cornell University Law School).

A curtilage refers to any area near a residential unit which was enclosed by the owner for the purpose of shielding from public view any or all family activities considered intimate or private. A curtilage, therefore, is also considered a person’s home as far as the Fourth Amendment protection from unwarranted and unreasonable search and seizure proceedings is concerned. In United States v. Dunn, 480 U. S.

294 (1987), the Court ruled that before determining whether an area is actually a curtilage, four factors should be considered: its proximity to the house; if the house is enclosed by a fence, whether, said area was included in the fenced-in area; whether the area is actually used for intimate family activities; and whether the owner of the house exerted enough efforts to shield the activities being conducted in the area from public view.


Cornell University Law School. FOURTH AMENDMENT SEARCH AND SEIZURE. Retrieved June 1, 2010, from USLegal Definitions. Curtilage Law & Legal Definition. Retrieved June 1, 2010, from http://definitions. uslegal. com/c/curtilage/

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