Today marks the 94th anniversary of the landmark decision of Hester v United States which established the “Open Fields Doctrine” which stands as a limit on the protections of the 4th amendment. While the doctrine would later be refined in the landmarks cases of Katz v. United States and later Oliver v. United States, Hester marks the first time the doctrine was articulated by the Court.
The case which made the basis of the Hester decision is a window into a different time in American constitutional law. The case came about during the apex of Prohibition, when the Federal Government and state police were pushing the bounds of what was allowed under the 4th amendment at the time. The case also came about during what would be known as the Lochner era, when the Supreme Court consistently expanded its interpretation of the Constitution.
The cases details highlight how Prohibition expanded the powers of Law Enforcement. Hester lived at his father’s house and was suspected to be involved in illegal bootlegging. Two IRS agents, who were responsible for enforcing federal alcohol prohibition approached the Hester residence. Hester’s father lived on a sizeable portion of land with large open fields surrounding the approach to the home itself. The agents hid in bushes some hundred and fifty yards away from the house when they saw a vehicle approaching the house driven by a one Mr. Henderson. The agents observed Mr. Hester leave the house with a jug in hand and give it to Mr. Henderson. The officers shouted and approached the home. Mr. Hester and Mr. Henderson ran. The officers got to the car and observed a gallon jug of spirits in the car, later identified as whisky. One of the officers pursued Mr. Hester and observed him drop a bottle which shattered on the ground. The other officer entered the home announcing he was searching for whiskey, when the officer was told that there was no whiskey in the home, he left the house and observed the broken bottle that Mr. Hester had dropped. Hester was arrested and charged under the “Volstead Act” for illegally possessing and selling alcohol.
Hester was brought to District Court and convicted of violating the Volstead Act. Hester unsuccessfully sought to suppress the testimony of the two IRS agents arguing that they had violated the 4th amendment by trespassing on his land without a warrant. Hester appealed his case directly to the Supreme Court seeking a writ of certiorari. The Supreme Court granted cert in early 1924 and heard arguments on April 24th, 1924.
Hester argued once again that the officers had violated the 4th amendment by trespassing on his land without a warrant, thus making their search illegal and their testimony inadmissible. The State argued that the agents had not violated the 4th amendment because the 4th amendment did not apply to open fields. The State reasoned that because the 4th amendment only applied to “persons, houses, papers and effects” and thus did not apply to open fields. Thus, the officer did not violate the 4th amendment by crossing the open fields to get a view of the Hester home.
The Supreme Court lead by renowned Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in a unanimous decision affirmed Mr. Hester’s conviction On May 5th, 1924. The Court reasoned that the 4th amendment was clear in what was protected, and among that list was not open fields. Thus, the Court concluded that the common law distinction between open fields and homes was a suitable distinction for where the 4th amendment protections end.
The Court would later go own to expand and flesh out the Open fields doctrine in the subsequent cases of Katz v. United States and Oliver v. United States. However, Hester’s primary issue remains applicable law. The 4th amendment does not protect open fields around homes. Thus, law enforcement may enter the land around a home without a search warrant. Experienced legal representation is required to examine the nuisance of whether law enforcement required a warrant for a search they have conducted. However, the basic principle of Hester remains true.
Written By Hunter White
 Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 88 S. Ct. 507 (1967)
 Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 104 S. Ct. 1735 (1984)
 Hester v. United States, 265 U.S. 57, 44 S. Ct. 445 (1924)