Plenty of TV shows and movies have used the concept of police officers searching someone’s trash as a plot gimmick. It leads to a breakthrough in the case that helps the investigators successfully prosecute someone.
The idea that officers can just search through someone’s garbage may seem like a major invasion of privacy, which might make you question whether it is even legal for officers to go through someone’s trash bin. Can officers look at a person’s garbage without a warrant or their permission?
There are complicated rules around searching trash
There is no one right answer to the question about whether a police search of someone’s trash was legal or not. The legality of a warrantless search will depend in large part on the location of the trash bin.
The U.S. Supreme Court has had to rule on a case where the crux of the matter was a police search of refuse. Ultimately, it ruled that such searches were permissible once someone puts the trash out for pickup. There’s no expectation of privacy because they have released those items for pickup from another party.
However, police officers cannot just search through the trash bin next to someone’s garage if they have not set it out for collection. Trash bins kept in the garage or directly next to the exterior of the house are likely included in the house’s curtilage. The curtilage of a home is an outdoor space that is an extension of the inner living space and which therefore has a reasonable expectation of privacy from searches by law enforcement.
When officers have either a warrant signed by a judge or permission from the homeowner to search the trash, then the placement of the trash bin at the time of the search will have no effect on the validity of that search.
Challenging searches is a complex process
Those hoping to fight pending criminal charges may want to exclude certain evidence from their trials. Some criminal defendants are able to prevent the prosecutor from using evidence because the police violated their rights or certain rules while gathering that evidence. Learning more about the restrictions on police searches and the rules that apply to court evidence will benefit anyone hoping to fight back against criminal charges.