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Can police officers search someone’s trash without a warrant?

On Behalf of | May 7, 2023 | Criminal Law |

If someone doesn’t know their rights, they might end up in a very vulnerable position while dealing with law enforcement officers and/or when facing criminal charges. For example, many people don’t really understand their rights regarding police searches.

What they see in popular media likely influences their understanding of their rights. Oversimplifications and exaggerations on TV shows and in movies can leave people unsure of whether something that the police did was actually a violation of their rights or simply standard procedure. For example, the trope of police officers using someone’s trash to connect them to a crime is a popular one. In real life, is it legal for police officers – who don’t possess a warrant or permission from a property owner – to go through someone’s trash bin?

There have been important court rulings on evidence from the garbage

Whether or not the police can root through someone’s trash bins is not a new legal question. In fact, disputes about this exact issue made their way to the Supreme Court in the 1980s, and the ruling in that case is what effectively establishes best practices for law enforcement agencies in the United States today.

The Court found that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy or protection from police searches once someone has taken their trash to the curb for collection. They have effectively released control over the bin and its contents, thereby making it legally permissible for law enforcement to go through its contents. However, that does not mean that trash bins are automatically fair game for investigators and police officers. When the bins are near the home, they have the same protection as other parts of the house’s curtilage from police searches.

The exterior sections of the home that serve as an extension of the living space, including walkways, patios and spaces directly next to the home or the garage, may not be subject to police search just because they are outside but may rather have the same expectation of privacy as other parts of someone’s residence.

There is no black-and-white answer regarding whether or not a police officer’s decision to search through someone’s trash will lead to evidence that can hold up in criminal court. The circumstances leading to the search and the placement of the bins will determine whether the search was legal.

Criminal defense strategies often grow from the tiniest details

Small mistakes in police procedure can have a big impact on the approach that someone takes when defending against criminal charges.

Seeking legal guidance in order to review the state’s evidence and the allegations against a defendant will be of the utmost importance for those who are hoping to partner with a lawyer to defend themselves in a criminal trial.