The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Courts have frequently confronted the question whether a warrant-less search and seizure of one's garbage offends an individual's 4th Amendment rights.
Can Police Officers Look Through My Garbage?
The vast majority of courts have found that when garbage is located in a place accessible to the public, police officers may legally search your garbage, which is why trying to hide evidence in the garbage is a bad idea. However, at least a few courts have ruled that a warrant-less search and seizure of garbage, even when left in a very public place, violated an individual's constitutional rights.
Does It Matter Where the Garbage Is Located?
Significant factors in "garbage search" cases include the exact location where the garbage was seized and any special precautions taken to maintain privacy in the garbage. The majority of courts have upheld searches and seizures of garbage in a variety of locations, including:
- Set out on the curb or on the sidewalk in front of one's residence
- Within one's yard or property surrounding his residence
- Within one's garage
- Within motel or hotel rooms
- Within offices
- In garbage receptacles found on the street, at a rest stop, or in a restaurant
- In a communal receptacle shared by tenants in the apartment complex
Are There Times When the Police Cannot Search Through My Garbage?
A minority of courts have held that officers are not allowed to search an individual's garbage in several of the locations listed above, including the sidewalk in front of your house, the yard surrounding your house, or your office. In these cases, courts found that state constitutions protected an individual's interest in the privacy of his garbage even though the Federal Constitution did not. Additionally, if police search the garbage within your house without a valid search warrant or conduct their search while trespassing on your property, you may have a claim that they conducted an illegal search.
Do I Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?
If you are accused of a crime based on evidence found by police officers while searching through your garbage, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer will be familiar with the laws of your state and whether your state constitution protects your expectation of privacy in your garbage.