United States v. Dunn, 85-998

Decision Date03 March 1987
Docket NumberNo. 85-998,85-998
Citation94 L.Ed.2d 326,480 U.S. 294,107 S.Ct. 1134
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Ronald Dale DUNN
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

In 1980, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, having discovered that one Carpenter had bought large quantities of chemicals and equipment used to make controlled substances, placed tracking "beepers" in some of the equipment and one of the chemical containers, which, when transported in Carpenter's truck, led the agents to respondent's ranch. Aerial photographs of the ranch showed the truck backed up to a barn behind the ranch house. The ranch was completely encircled by a perimeter fence, and contained several interior barbed wire fences, including one around the house approximately 50 yards from the barn, and a wooden fence enclosing the front of the barn, which had an open overhang and locked, waist-high gates. Without a warrant, officers crossed the perimeter fence, several of the barbed wire fences, and the wooden fence in front of the barn. They were led there by the smell of chemicals, and, while there, could hear a motor running inside. They did not enter the barn but stopped at the locked gate and shined a flashlight inside, observing what they took to be a drug laboratory. They then left the ranch, but entered it twice the next day to confirm the laboratory's presence. They obtained a search warrant and executed it, arresting respondent and seizing chemicals and equipment, as well as bags of amphetamines they discovered in the house. After the District Court denied respondent's motion to suppress all evidence seized pursuant to the warrant, respondent and Carpenter were convicted of conspiracy to manufacture controlled substances and related offenses. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the barn was within the residence's curtilage and therefore within the Fourth Amendment's protective ambit.


1. The area near the barn is not within the curtilage of the house for Fourth Amendment purposes. Extent-of-curtilage questions should be resolved with particular reference to the following four factors, at least to the extent that they bear upon whether the area claimed to be curtilage is so intimately tied to the home itself that it should be placed under the home's "umbrella" of protection: (1) the proximity of the area to the home; (2) whether the area is within an enclosure surrounding the home; (3) the nature and uses to which the area is put; and (4) the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by passersby. Applying the first factor to the instant case, the barn's substantial distance from the fence surrounding the house (50 yards) and from the house itself (60 yards) supports no inference that it should be treated as an adjunct of the house. Second, the barn did not lie within the fence surrounding the house, which plainly demarks the area that is part and parcel of the house, but stands out as a distinct and separate portion of the ranch. Third, it is especially significant that the officers possessed objective data indicating that the barn was not being used as part of respondent's home, in that the aerial photographs showed that Carpenter's truck was backed up to the barn, apparently to unload its contents which included the chemical container, and the officers detected strong chemical odors coming from, and heard a motor running in, the barn. Fourth, respondent did little to protect the barn area from observation by those standing outside, the ranch's fences being of the type used to corral livestock, not to ensure privacy. Pp. 300-303.

2. Respondent's contention that, because the barn is essential to his business, he possessed an expectation of privacy in it and its contents independent from his home's curtilage, is without merit. Even assuming that the barn could not be entered lawfully without a warrant, respondent's argument ignores the fact that, prior to obtaining the warrant, the officers never entered the barn but conducted their observations from the surrounding open fields after crossing over respondent's ranch-style fences. The Court's prior decisions have established that the Government's intrusion upon open fields is not an unreasonable search; that the erection of fences on an open field—at least of the type involved here—does not create a constitutionally protected privacy interest; that warrantless naked-eye observation of an area protected by the Fourth Amendment is not unconstitutional; and that shining a flashlight into a protected area, without probable cause to search the area, is permissible. Pp. 303-305.

782 F.2d 1226 (CA 5 1985), reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in all but the paragraph headed "Third" in Part II of which SCALIA, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, post, p. ----. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. ----.

Roy T. Englert, Jr., Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Louis Dugas, Jr., Orange, Tex., for respondent.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted the Government's petition for certiorari to decide whether the area near a barn, located approximately 50 yards from a fence surrounding a ranch house, is, for Fourth Amendment purposes, within the curtilage of the house. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the barn lay within the house's curtilage, and that the District Court should have suppressed certain evidence obtained as a result of law enforcement officials' intrusion onto the area immediately surrounding the barn. 782 F.2d 1226 (1986). We conclude that the barn and the area around it lay outside the curtilage of the house, and accordingly reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


Respondent Ronald Dale Dunn and a codefendant, Robert Lyle Carpenter, were convicted by a jury of conspiring to manufacture phenylacetone and amphetamine, and to possess amphetamine with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. Respondent was also convicted of manufacturing these two controlled substances and possessing amphetamine with intent to distribute. The events giving rise to respondent's apprehension and conviction began in 1980 when agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) discovered that Carpenter had purchased large quantities of chemicals and equipment used in the manufacture of amphetamine and phenylacetone. DEA agents obtained warrants from a Texas state judge authorizing installation of miniature electronic transmitter tracking devices, or "beepers," in an electric hot plate stirrer, a drum of acetic anhydride, and a container holding phenylacetic acid, a precursor to phenylacetone. All of these items had been ordered by Carpenter. On September 3, 1980, Carpenter took possession of the electric hot plate stirrer, but the agents lost the signal from the "beeper" a few days later. The agents were able to track the "beeper" in the container of chemicals, however, from October 27, 1980, until November 5, 1980, on which date Carpenter's pickup truck, which was carrying the container, arrived at respondent's ranch. Aerial photographs of the ranch property showed Carpenter's truck backed up to a barn behind the ranch house. The agents also began receiving transmission signals from the "beeper" in the hot plate stirrer that they had lost in early September and determined that the stirrer was on respondent's ranch property.

Respondent's ranch comprised approximately 198 acres and was completely encircled by a perimeter fence. The property also contained several interior fences, constructed mainly of posts and multiple strands of barbed wire. The ranch residence was situated 1/2 mile from a public road. A fence encircled the residence and a nearby small greenhouse. Two barns were located approximately 50 yards from this fence. The front of the larger of the two barns was enclosed by a wooden fence and had an open overhang. Locked, waist-high gates barred entry into the barn proper, and netting material stretched from the ceiling to the top of the wooden gates.

On the evening of November 5, 1980, law enforcement officials made a warrantless entry onto respondent's ranch property. A DEA agent accompanied by an officer from the Houston Police Department crossed over the perimeter fence and one interior fence. Standing approximately midway between the residence and the barns, the DEA agent smelled what he believed to be phenylacetic acid, the odor coming from the direction of the barns. The officers approached the smaller of the barns—crossing over a barbed wire fence—and, looking into the barn, observed only empty boxes. The officers then proceeded to the larger barn, crossing another barbed wire fence as well as a wooden fence that enclosed the front portion of the barn. The officers walked under the barn's overhang to the locked wooden gates and, shining a flashlight through the netting on top of the gates, peered into the barn. They observed what the DEA agent thought to be a phenylacetone laboratory. The officers did not enter the barn.1 At this point the officers departed from respondent's property, but entered it twice more on November 6 to confirm the presence of the phenylacetone laboratory.

On November 6, 1980, at 8:30 p.m., a Federal Magistrate issued a warrant authorizing a search of respondent's ranch. DEA agents and state law enforcement officials executed the warrant on November 8, 1980.2 The officers arrested re- spondent and seized chemicals and equipment, as well as bags of amphetamines they discovered in a closet in the ranch house.

The District Court denied respondent's motion to suppress all evidence seized pursuant to the warrant and respondent and Carpenter were convicted. In a decision rendered in 1982, the Court of...

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