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The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home.
Larry Roberson, Billy Ralph Cooper, Carolyn Laverne Bell, Warren Earl Comeaux and Lillian Wilson were arrested for and convicted of various drug-related charges arising from a conspiracy. On appeal Roberson and Wilson challenged the district court's denial of their motions to suppress evidence. Roberson argued that the court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence seized, claiming that the warrant was impermissibly based on an unlawful search of the garbage cans. The district court held that the garbage search was permissible because "the residents of the house …voluntarily left trash for collection in an area particularly suited for public inspection." Wilson challenged the search of her Chicago residence on several grounds. She first argued that suppression is required because there were material misrepresentations and omissions in the search warrant application. Roberson, Bell and Wilson argued that the court erred in denying their motions to sever and in permitting testimony concerning redacted portions of Bell's post-arrest statement to be admitted into evidence.
Was the warrantless search of the garbage cans lawful?
The court affirmed and found that the convictions were proper. The district court relied on California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35, 37, 100 L. Ed. 2d 30, 108 S. Ct. 1625 (1988), wherein the Supreme 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." Roberson asserted that Greenwood is distinguishable, because at the suppression hearing Cich testified that he was unsure whether the garbage cans were outside the curtilage. Roberson, however, has failed to provide a transcript of the suppression hearing. Ordinarily, in such circumstances, the court would be unable to review his claim. However, even assuming that the garbage cans were within the curtilage, the court found Roberson's claim to be without merit. The court believed that the "proper focus under Greenwood is whether the garbage was readily accessible to the public so as to render any expectation of privacy objectively unreasonable." In Hedrick, the court upheld a warrantless search of garbage that was placed in cans located within the curtilage of a home, because the cans were readily accessible to the public. Likewise, in this case, the garbage was readily accessible to the public. Testimony at Wilson's suppression hearing and the trial demonstrates that Cich did not even have to leave his van, which was parked in the alley, to retrieve the garbage. The court held that the lower court did not err in denying defendants' motion to suppress because neither the misstatements nor omissions were material to the finding of probable cause. The court also rejected defendants' arguments concerning a lack of a nexus between their home and drug activity, lack of specificity in the description of the items seized, and lack of Internal Revenue Service approval. The court also held that the lower court properly denied defendants' motions to sever. Any error by the lower court in admitting the testimony of one of defendants' role in the conspiracy was harmless. Finally, the court found that the lower court was not clearly erroneous in finding that the trial testimony established the leadership role in the conspiracy of one of defendants.