California v. Greenwood: What’s Up With the Trash?

Your trash isn’t as safe as you think, and the courts will tell you that.

Are you familiar with the case California v. Greenwood?  This particular case is rather important if you don’t pay attention to what you toss in the trash.  California vs. Greenwood stemmed from a 1984 investigation in Laguna Beach, California.  Investigators suspected Billy Greenwood of drug trafficking and found evidence in his curbside trash.  The evidence enabled them to obtain a full search warrant of his house which lead to his arrest, but charges were dropped because of the unwarranted search of his trash citing fourth amendment rights.

In California v. Greenwood, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of investigators and held that “the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home.”

The case involved the protections extended by the 4th Amendment and the limits of the exclusionary rule. Here’s why that’s important.

The state of California argued that the trash at the curb is outside the “curtilage,” or area of reasonable control, of the homeowner. It is not within the protection of the 4th Amendment, for any passerby could have access to it.

The 4th Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures, and states that probable cause must exist for a warrant to be issued.

It is generally considered legal for people to rummage through trash that has been left in a public area such as a curb for pickup.  Once the garbage is placed in such a place, the person has basically forfeited their ownership rights to the items, as the property is now in the public domain.  If the dumpster or garbage bin is still in an enclosed area or is on private property, a person could be cited for trespassing or even for theft, if they try to rummage through the garbage.  Also, some cities or counties may designate certain garbage processing areas as off-limits to the public.

What does this tell us? That our identities are as vulnerable as our trash left out for anyone to grab. Don’t put anything in the trash you wouldn’t want to be seen, stolen, or taken advantage of.  Before you toss those credit card offers, bank statements, and other identifying pieces of mail in the garbage, shred it. It’s the only way to protect your identity where your trash is concerned.

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