The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the primary source of law that governs searches, seizures, and their legal procedures. The 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 main body of law to refer to when addressing privacy issues, such as wiretaps and surveillance.

While the amendment does not explicitly mention the word privacy, it is implied as an underlying principle. It is part of a test that courts generally use to determine whether a search meets the law’s requirements for reasonableness.

When you think of your garbage, it may be hard for you to imagine that something you threw away would spark a constitutional debate about privacy.

However, in a case from 1988 entitled California v. Greenwood, the Supreme Court of the United States held that an individual does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their trash. Therefore, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit law enforcement from a warrantless search and seizure of their garbage.

Despite the outcome of that court case, courts have continued to grapple with the question of whether a warrantless search and seizure of one’s garbage offends that individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Can Police Officers Look Through My Garbage?

In general, the vast majority of courts have found that when garbage is placed in a location that is accessible to the public, such as a street curb, law enforcement is legally permitted to search that garbage. Hence, why attempting to hide evidence in a trash bin is a bad idea.

On the other hand, a minority of courts have ruled that a warrantless search and seizure of garbage, even when left in a very public place, violates a person’s constitutional rights.

If a person is unclear of which view the courts in their jurisdiction take, they should err on the side of caution and assume it is the majority rule. In the event that it is pertinent to their case, then it is in the person’s best interest to speak to a criminal defense attorney for further legal advice.

Does It Matter Where the Garbage is Located?

In some cases, the search may be protected by the Fourth Amendment because of where the garbage is located. Thus, it is important to understand the factors that a court may review before issuing a decision in a “garbage search” case, such as the exact location of where the garbage was seized from and any special precautions that were taken 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, including:

  • Set on the curb or on a sidewalk in front of one’s home;
  • Found in a person’s yard or property surrounding their residence (i.e., curtilage);
  • Kept in one’s 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 shared by tenants in an apartment complex.

Are There Circumstances Where the Police Cannot Search Through My Garbage?

A minority of courts have held that police officers are not allowed to search an individual’s garbage in several of the locations listed above, including the sidewalk in front of a house, the yard or area surrounding a home, or found in a person’s office.

In these instances, many of the courts found that their state constitutions protected the individual’s interest in the privacy of their garbage, even though the U.S. Constitution did not.

In addition, 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, then those persons may have a claim that law enforcement conducted an illegal search.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Search Issues?

Unlawful searches and seizures are very serious matters. When law enforcement conducts an improper search or an unlawful seizure, it might mean that your constitutional rights have been violated. Also, 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.

Therefore, if you are accused of a crime based on evidence found by police officers while searching through your garbage, then you should contact a local criminal defense lawyer immediately.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer will be familiar with the laws of your state and whether your state constitution protects your expectation of privacy in your garbage. A lawyer can also determine whether any defenses will apply to your case and if the evidence they collected can be suppressed.