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Law School Case Brief

California v. Greenwood - 486 U.S. 35, 108 S. Ct. 1625 (1988)


The warrantless search and seizure of garbage bags left at the curb outside a house violates U.S. Const. amend. IV only if the respondents manifest a subjective expectation of privacy in their garbage that society accepts as objectively reasonable.


A police investigator, having received information that an individual might be engaged in drug trafficking, asked the regular trash collector to pick up the plastic trash bags which the individual had left on the curb in front of his house and to turn those bags over to the investigator without mixing their contents with garbage from other houses. The collector complied, cleaning his truck bin of other garbage before he collected the bags in question. Without a warrant, the investigator searched through the contents of those bags and found items indicative of narcotics use, which she then used in obtaining a warrant to search the individual's home where quantities of narcotics were found. A subsequent similar trash search produced further evidence supporting a second search of the house. The Superior Court dismissed the charges against the individual and an alleged accomplice arising from these searches on the grounds that a warrantless trash search violates law and the police would not have had probable cause to search the home without the evidence obtained from the trash searches. In affirming the Superior Court's decision, the California Court of Appeal stated that, while a recent amendment to the state constitution had barred the suppression of evidence seized in violation of state law but not federal law, the state courts were bound by the aforementioned state precedent, holding that the trash search violated federal law, unless and until the United States Supreme Court decided the question differently. The Supreme Court of California denied the prosecution's petition for review.


Did the warrantless search of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home violate the Fourth Amendment?




The court held that the Fourth Amendment did not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home because there was no subjective expectation of privacy in the garbage that society accepted as objectively reasonable. The garbage was sufficiently exposed and did not have Fourth Amendment protection because it was deposited in an area particularly suited for public inspection for the express purpose of having strangers take it. The court concluded that the police could not reasonably be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public.

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