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

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

Facts—Acting on information that Greenwood might be in the narcotics trade, the Laguna Beach Police Department asked the neighborhood’s regular trash collector to pick up the plastic garbage bags at the curb in front of Greenwood’s home. Before doing so the trash collector cleaned his truck bin of other refuse, picked up the plastic bags, and turned them over to the police. Searching through the bags, an officer found evidence of narcotic use, which was used for a warrant to search Greenwood’s home, where the police discovered quantities of cocaine and hashish.

Question—Does the Fourth Amendment prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home?


ReasonsJ. White (6–2). “The warrantless search and seizure of the garbage bags left at the curb outside the Greenwood house would violate the Fourth Amendment only if respondents manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in their garbage that society accepts as objectively reasonable.” In exposing their garbage to the public, the defendants helped defeat their claim to Fourth Amendment protection. It is common knowledge that garbage in plastic bags left on or at the site of a public street is readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and others of the public. Respondents “. . . could have had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the culpatory items that they discarded.” The police, furthermore, “. . . cannot reasonably be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public. In Smith v. Maryland (1979) the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by causing a pen register to be installed at the telephone company’s office to record the telephone numbers dialed by a criminal suspect, and in California v. Ciraolo (1986) the police were not “required by the Fourth Amendment to obtain a warrant before conducting surveillance of the respondent’s fenced backyard from a private plane flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet.”

J. Brennan argued in dissent that “Scrutiny of another’s trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior.”

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