Can Police Officers Search My Garbage?

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 What Is Criminal Evidence?

Criminal evidence refers to any physical or verbal evidence that is presented for the purpose of proving a crime, although it may also be introduced by the defendant in order to prove that they are not guilty. It is illegal to attempt to hide any of this evidence from the plaintiff or from the authorities, an action that is known as spoliation of evidence. In any criminal trial, the burden is on the prosecution to prove that the defendant committed the crime.

Examples of verbal evidence may include:

  • Confessions that were made by the defendant;
  • Testimony offered by witnesses and expert witnesses;
  • Documents such as a search warrant or other files; and
  • Spoken evidence such as that obtained through a wiretap or other similar technology.

Physical evidence is any tangible evidence that is generally presented as an exhibit. Examples can include:

  • Weapons or other instruments used to commit a crime;
  • Illegal contraband such as drugs, drug money, and drug paraphernalia;
  • DNA, blood, or bodily samples, such as hair;
  • Photographs or video footage;
  • Demonstrative evidence;
  • Footprints or other types of tracks; and
  • Scientific and forensic evidence.

All criminal evidence can be further classified as being either direct or circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence supplies the prosecution with information that is true “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while circumstantial evidence does not prove a theory but rather suggests proof in support of the theory.

Can Police Officers Search My Garbage?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution governs searches, seizures, and their legal procedures. This amendment was specifically added to the Bill of Rights for the purpose of protecting the public from acts of unreasonable searches and/or seizures being carried out by law enforcement officers.

Aside from providing certain protections to the public from unlawful police acts, the Fourth Amendment has also become the defining body of law to refer to when addressing privacy issues. While the amendment does not explicitly mention the word “privacy,” it is implied as an underlying principle as part of a test that courts generally use to determine whether a search constitutes reasonableness.

In terms of garbage and your privacy rights associated with your trash, in a case from 1988 entitled California v. Greenwood, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their trash. As such, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit law enforcement from a warrantless search and seizure of garbage.

Generally speaking, the vast majority of courts have found that when garbage is placed in a location that is accessible to the public, law enforcement is legally permitted to search that garbage. This is why attempting to hide evidence in a trash bin is discouraged. However, a minority of courts have ruled that a warrantless search and seizure of garbage, even when the garbage is left in a very public place, violates a person’s constitutional rights.

Does It Matter Where The Garbage Is Located?

Under specific circumstances, the search may be protected by the Fourth Amendment because of where the garbage is located. As such, it is important to understand the factors that a court may review before issuing a decision in a “garbage search” case. An example of this would be the exact location of where the garbage was seized from, as well as any special precautions that were taken in order to maintain privacy in the garbage.

Generally speaking, the majority of courts have upheld searches and seizures of garbage stored in a variety of locations, which include but may not be limited to:

  • Set on the curb or on a sidewalk in front of your home;
  • Found in your yard or property surrounding your residence;
  • Kept in your garage;
  • Within motel or hotel rooms;
  • Inside an office;
  • In garbage receptacles on the street, at a rest stop, or in a restaurant; and
  • From a communal trash bin that is shared by tenants in an apartment complex.

Are There Any Circumstances In Which The Police Cannot Search My Garbage?

To reiterate, a minority of courts have held that police officers are not allowed to search an individual’s garbage in several of the locations that are listed above. In these instances, many of the courts found that their state constitutions protected the individual’s interest in the privacy of their garbage, even when the Fourth Amendment failed to do so.

Additionally, if the police search a trash bin located inside a home without a valid search warrant or if they conduct their search while trespassing on someone’s property, those people may have a claim that law enforcement conducted an illegal search.

As was previously mentioned, a search that is conducted without a proper warrant and does not fall under any of the warrantless exceptions will be considered an illegal search. Evidence that is obtained during an illegal search is referred to as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” or FOTPT for short.

FOTPT is an important criminal law doctrine because it renders illegally acquired evidence as inadmissible in court. The intention is that if law enforcement conducts a search in a manner that would violate a defendant’s constitutional rights, any information that an illegal search produces should be considered “tainted” because of their unlawful conduct.

An example of this would be if the police arrest a defendant without first reading them their Miranda rights, and they bring them to a police station. At the station, the police then use coercive tactics or force the defendant to answer questions about jewelry that they supposedly stole.

If the defendant tells the police where the stolen jewelry is located, and the police only find it based on their answer, both the defendant’s statements and the stolen jewelry will most likely be inadmissible because the police searched for it in an illegal manner. They violated the defendant’s fifth amendment rights by not Mirandizing them, and continued by violating search and seizure protocols based on the defendant’s illegal and inadmissible statements.

This is why the FOTPT doctrine can be an especially important and useful tool for a criminal defendant. It can potentially reduce the legal consequences of a crime and in some matters, could possibly serve to dismiss a case altogether. However, there are three exceptions to when the FOTPT doctrine will not apply. This includes when:

  • Discovery of the evidence was inevitable;
  • A separate source that is independent of the initial illegal one, also found the evidence; and
  • If the connection between the illegal conduct and discovery of the evidence is considered to be too thin.

Additionally, FOTPT will not apply if evidence is illegally acquired but is admissible based on the good-faith exception to invalid search warrants.

Do I Need A Lawyer If The Police Search My Garbage?

When law enforcement conducts an improper search or an unlawful seizure, your constitutional rights might have been violated. Additionally, any evidence or information that the police might gain from such conduct could make the difference between being convicted of a crime or having the charges against you dropped.

If you are accused of a crime based on evidence that was found by police officers while searching through your garbage, you should contact a local criminal defense lawyer immediately. An attorney will be familiar with the laws of your state and whether your state constitution protects your expectation of privacy in your garbage. Additionally, they will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.

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