The Legality of Evidence Found in Trash With No Warrant

The Fourth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution in basically the same language state “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the person or things to be seized.” This is to prevent police officers from being able to search your home, your person or your vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.  However, before someone can claim protection under this language, they must first prove they had an expectation of privacy.

How privacy applies to garbage

When you throw something into the trash can in your home, it’s protected by privacy because someone actually has to come into your home to see what’s in the trash. However, once your trash is out in the curb of your home, you no longer have a right to privacy because anything placed on the curb could be considered abandoned. Once your trash hits the curb, you no longer have an expectation of privacy. This isn’t the only time you forfeit your privacy based on throwing away trash; if you toss something in the trash where you work, your employer may authorize law enforcement to search your trash.

Trash and suspicion leads to warrants

Let’s assume a neighbor calls police complaining people are coming and going from your home at all hours of the day and night. The neighbor may indicate they have reason to believe you are distributing drugs from your home. Police may not have sufficient reason to knock on your door and conduct a search. However, if your trash is on the sidewalk, they may open the container (which now is considered abandoned) to search for evidence. Let’s assume for a moment they find 10 empty boxes of Benadryl in your trash. This may be sufficient evidence for police to request a search warrant for your home.

Search warrant results: Problem or no problem

Once a search warrant has been executed if police find no evidence of drug distribution, your problems may not end there. Police may continue to “watch” your trash for additional evidence to use for a warrant to allow surveillance of your home. This surveillance could yield additional evidence which could subsequently be used to obtain another search warrant to search your home. But what happens if the warrant does produce evidence?

Assuming someone in your home doesn’t suffer massive allergies and you have not placed the 10 boxes of Benadryl into a bottle in your medicine cabinet, the evidence may be used as a basis for charges of distribution or manufacture of methamphetamine. Now you’re facing an arrest based on evidence gathered from your trash can.  This evidence can be disputed if you are working with a criminal defense attorney who understands how trash can be tampered with.

No privacy: Anyone has access

The problem with the police basing an arrest on trash they found in front of your home is linking the evidence to your home. While the Minnesota (Minnesota v. McMurray) and U.S. Supreme Courts (California v. Greenwood) have upheld the right of police to search your garbage for evidence once it’s on the curb, there still has to be a way to demonstrate the trash came from your home.

Police officers are held to a high standard of proof when seeking a search warrant. In some cases, even if the initial evidence came from a trash can that contained your trash, a criminal defense attorney may still be able to have the evidence suppressed or thrown out completely.  Remember, finding something in the trash is only the first step, the police still need to prove the evidence came from your home and by extension from you. Even if you feel the police evidence is strong, contact Christian Peterson Attorney at Law immediately if you are arrested based on evidence found in your trash.