California v. Greenwood
486 U.S. 35, 108 S. Ct. 1625, 100 L. Ed.2d 30 (1988)

  • The police suspected Greenwood of selling drugs. They asked the garbage collector to give them Greenwood’s garbage bags.
    • Inside the bags they found evidence of illegal drugs.
  • Based on the garbage, the police were able to get a search warrant, searched Greenwood’s house and found lots of drugs. Greenwood was arrested for drug possession.
  • At trial, Greenwood argued that the intrusion into his garbage was an unreasonable search and seizure and therefore violated the 4th Amendment.
  • The trial judge found that the warrantless search of the garbage was improper and dismissed the charged. The prosecutor appealed.
    • The trial judge found that a search of someone’s garbage violated the 4th Amendment.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal. The prosecutor appealed.
  • The California Supreme Court refused to grant certiorari to hear the case. The prosecutor appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and found that searching garbage is not a violation of the 4th Amendment.
    • The US Supreme Court found that Greenwood had no reasonable expectation of privacy.
      • The Court believed it to be common knowledge that garbage at the side of the street is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.”
      • The Court noted that Greenwood had left the trash there expressly so that the trash collector, a stranger, could take it.
        • In Katz v. United States (389 U.S. 347 (1967)), the Court concluded that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of 4th Amendment protection.”
          • Aka the third party disclosure rule, which says that if you willingly give information to a third party, you willingly give up the right to privacy, even if you give it to them with an expectation of confidentiality!
            • That includes phone records, bank records, internet search data, etc.
      • Greenwood tried to argue that he subjectively expected privacy, but the Court applied an objective standard and said that the reasonable person would not expect the contents of their trash to remain private.
  • In a dissent it was argued that the fact someone may rummage through the garbage 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.
    • Especially since “scrutiny of another’s trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior.”
    • The dissent argued that the standard should be that “so long as a package is closed against inspection, the 4th Amendment protects it’s content wherever they may be.”
      • It was argued that garbage is kinda like luggage, except that instead of transporting goods it is for discarding them. And you can’t look into luggage without a warrant.
        • When is a discarded item no longer considered the property of the owner? When does it become abandoned? And should 4th Amendment protections still apply to abandoned items?
  • Should it make a difference whether the garbage man finds the evidence on his own and calls the police, or if the police direct the garbage man to look for the evidence?