Today in 1988: The Supreme Court allows police to search through trash without a warrant

May 16, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryDo you give much thought to what you throw away?

Most probably don’t, but a wealth of information can be found about an individual by looking at what is left out for the garbage man to collect every week.  Just think about it: someone looking through your trash could discern your eating and reading habits, political affiliations, and personal relationships.

Given the abundance of private details available in one’s trash bin, it may be understandable to believe that the government cannot search through it without first obtaining a warrant.  This belief would be mistaken, however, under a Supreme Court ruling that is marking its 26th anniversary today: California v. Greenwood.

Greenwood, decided on May 16, 1988, held that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage that is left for collection “outside the curtilage of a home.”

The facts of the case begin with the receipt of information by Investigator Jenny Stracner of the Laguna Beach Police Department that Billy Greenwood might be trafficking in drugs.  Stracner asked Greenwood’s regular trash collector to keep his trash separate from the other trash in the neighborhood, so that it might be examined for evidence of narcotics trafficking.

After police thoroughly examined the trash bags, they discovered a number of drug-related articles.  The police subsequently obtained a warrant to search Greenwood’s home, which resulted in the police finding “quantities of cocaine and hashish.”  Greenwood was arrested.

After posting bail, police once again inspected Greenwood’s garbage in the same manner that they had the first time, and once again, the police found evidence of drug use.  After obtaining another warrant to search the home, the police found more evidence of narcotics and narcotics trafficking, and again arrested Greenwood.

The trial court dismissed the charges, however, citing to a 1971 California Supreme Court ruling that held that warrantless trash searches violate both the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution.  The court of appeals affirmed, and the California Supreme Court denied the State’s petition for review.

The U.S. Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case, and overturned the lower ruling by a vote of six to two.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Byron White, ruled that no warrant was necessary for the police to sift through Greenwood’s garbage because he “exposed [his] garbage to the public sufficiently to defeat [his] claim to Fourth Amendment protection.”  Justice White further wrote: “it is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops and other members of the public.”

Justice William Brennan authored the dissent, which was joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Brennan took note of the amount of private information available within someone’s trash bin, and that “scrutiny of another’s trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior.”  Justice Brennan reasoned that

[t]he mere possibility that unwelcome meddlers might open and rummage through the containers does not negate the expectation of privacy in their contents any more than the possibility of a burglary negates an expectation of privacy in the home.

Although Justice Brennan’s concerns may seem overstated in the face of the large-scale electronic surveillance by the NSA that we know today, the ruling was quite a shock at the time, since many states had taken contrary legal positions.

Nevertheless, though the ruling disappointed privacy advocates, it still serves a role in putting citizens on notice: the government may look through your trash, so be careful about what you throw away.