This is an audio case brief of California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.
In early 1984, Jenny Stracner of the Laguna Beach Police Department received information indicating that defendant Billy Greenwood might be engaged in narcotics trafficking. A criminal suspect had informed a federal drug enforcement agent in February 1984 that a truck filled with illegal drugs was en route to the Laguna Beach address at which Greenwood resided. In addition, a neighbor complained of heavy vehicular traffic late at night in front of Greenwood’s single-family home. The neighbor reported that the vehicles remained at Greenwood’s house for only a few minutes.
Stracner sought to investigate this information by conducting a surveillance of Greenwood’s home. She observed several vehicles make brief stops at the house during the late-night and early morning hours, and she followed a truck from the house to a residence that had previously been under investigation as a narcotics-trafficking location.
On April 6, 1984, Stracner asked the neighborhood’s regular trash collector to pick up the plastic garbage bags that Greenwood had left on the curb in front of his house and to turn the bags over to her without mixing their contents with garbage from other houses. The trash collector cleaned his truck bin of other refuse, collected the garbage bags from the street in front of Greenwood’s house, and turned the bags over to Stracner. The officer searched through the garbage and found items indicative of narcotics use. She recited the information that she had gleaned from the trash search in an affidavit in support of a warrant to search Greenwood’s home.
Greenwood and his codefendant Van Houten were at the residence when officers arrived to execute the warrant later that day. The police discovered quantities of cocaine and hashish during their search of the house. Greenwood and Van Houten were arrested on felony narcotics charges. And they subsequently posted bail.
The police continued to receive reports of many late-night visitors to the Greenwood house. On May 4, Investigator Robert Rahaeuser obtained Greenwood’s garbage from the regular trash collector in the same manner as had Stracner. The garbage again contained evidence of narcotics use.
Rahaeuser secured another search warrant for Greenwood’s home based on the information from the second trash search. The police found more narcotics and evidence of narcotics trafficking when they executed the warrant. Greenwood was again arrested.
The California Superior Court dismissed the charges. The court reasoned that warrantless trash searches violate the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution. The court found that the police would not have had probable cause to search the Greenwood home without the evidence obtained from the trash searches. The Court of Appeal affirmed. The California Supreme Court denied the State’s petition for review of the Court of Appeal’s decision.
The U.S Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
Whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home.
An expectation of privacy in trash left for collection in an area accessible to the public is not one that society would recognize as reasonable.
Greenwood argued that he had, and exhibited, an expectation of privacy with respect to the trash that was searched by the police: The trash, which was placed on the street for collection at a fixed time, was contained in opaque plastic bags, which the garbage collector was expected to pick up, mingle with the trash of others, and deposit at the garbage dump. The trash was only temporarily on the street, and there was little likelihood that it would be inspected by anyone.
But the court disagreed.
And here is why.
The court that It may well be that the defendants did not expect that the contents of their garbage bags would become known to the police or other members of the public. However, an expectation of privacy does not give rise to Fourth Amendment protection, unless society is prepared to accept that expectation as objectively reasonable.
The court found that the defendants exposed their garbage to the public sufficiently to defeat their claim to Fourth Amendment protection.
The court reasoned that It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public. Moreover, Greenwood placed his refuse at the curb for the express purpose of conveying it to a third party, the trash collector, who might himself have sorted through the trash or permitted others, such as the police, to do so. Accordingly, having deposited their garbage in an area particularly suited for public inspection and, in a manner of speaking, public consumption, for the express purpose of having strangers take it, The defendants could not have had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the inculpatory items that they discarded.
Furthermore, as we have held, the police cannot reasonably be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public. Hence, What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. For example, we held in Smith v. Maryland that the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by causing a pen register to be installed at the telephone company’s offices to record the telephone numbers dialed by a criminal suspect. An individual has no legitimate expectation of privacy in the numbers dialed on his telephone, we reasoned, because he voluntarily conveys those numbers to the telephone company when he uses the telephone. Again, we observed that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.
The court held that a warrantless search, and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home does not violate the fourth amendment.