If you think that the police cannot search your trash simply because you put it into your garbage can and place it in front of your home to be picked up by trash collectors, think again! In the case of California v. Greenwood, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the police are allowed to search your trash without a warrant if you leave your garbage for collection outside the curtilage of your home.
In the Greenwood case, the police twice obtained garbage bags left on the curb in front of Mr. Greenwood's home after receiving information that Greenwood might be involved in the trafficking of narcotics. When the police found items indicating narcotics use inside the garbage bags, they obtained a warrant to search Greenwood's home where they found narcotics and then arrested Greenwood on felony narcotics charges.
In deciding against Mr. Greenwood, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since Greenwood voluntarily left his trash in an area particularly suited for public inspection (that is, by the side of the road), his claimed expectation of privacy in the trash that he threw away was not objectively reasonable. The High Court said that it is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on a public street are readily accessible to snoops, scavengers, children, and animals as well as any other member of the public. Moreover, Greenwood placed his trash at the curb in front of his home for the express purpose of giving it to the trash collector who might himself have sorted through it or permitted others, such as the police, to do so. According to the Supreme Court, the police cannot reasonably be expected to turn their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that can be observed by any other member of the public.
However, in one case that involved the search of a Florida resident's trash, Raulerson v. State of Florida, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the evidence that the police presented to a judge did not provide that judge with the probable cause that the judge needed in order to issue a valid search warrant.
In the Raulerson case, the police received an anonymous complaint that the people living at Ms. Raulerson's address were involved in illegal drug activity. Based on this tip, the police went to Raulerson's home and took six bags of trash that were located by the curb in front of her home. After searching through each of the bags, the police found such things as two cannabis cigarette butts as well as other pieces of suspected cannabis. Based on this evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search Ms. Raulerson's home where they found contraband.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that although the information provided by the police to the judge was relevant insofar as the substance found by the police in their one-time search of Raulerson's trash tested positive for cannabis, it was still the case that the information provided by the police to the judge lacked other sufficient material facts indicating a fair probability that cannabis would be found in Raulerson's home.
For example, had the evidence provided by the police to the judge consisted of two separate searches of Raulerson's trash rather than just one, such evidence might have provided the judge with the probable cause needed to issue a valid search warrant. Or, to take another example, had the evidence provided by the police consisted of the one search of Raulerson's trash along with other evidence such as seeing cars repeatedly drive up to Raulerson's home during all hours of the day and night and then leaving shortly thereafter, such evidence might also have provided the judge with the probable cause needed to issue a valid search warrant.
Had the facts in Ms. Raulerson's case been just slightly different, her conviction would almost certainly have been affirmed on appeal rather than reversed.