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Can Police Search Through Your Trash?

You may have never found your trash to be anyone's treasure, but it easily could be the target of a police search.

As the law stands, there is no expectation of privacy in trash that you put out by the curb, and law enforcement can rifle through your refuse with wild abandon.

So what rights do any of us have to protect our trash from police searches? Here's a quick general overview:

  • Fourth Amendment protection. The Fourth Amendment protects you and your property from "unreasonable searches and seizures" without a warrant. This generally means that the government, including state, federal, and local law enforcement, cannot intrude into your privacy without probable cause.
  • Trash inside the house. Even though you throw something away, you have a privacy interest in the things that are within the boundaries of your home. If police wanted to search your trash can inside your home or garage, they would need a search warrant or exigent circumstances in order to do so.
  • Trash that you carry. Many of us carry around pockets full of items that we plan to discard, like receipts and plastic wrappers. Police generally cannot search you or seize these items without violating your Fourth Amendment rights. Even sealed trash bags in the back of a parked car may be considered to have an expectation of privacy that would be violated by a police search.
  • Trash on the curb. Your right to privacy in your property extends outward to what is called a curtilage, the area immediately surrounding your home. This curtilage, however, does not include trash that is left outside your home on the curb for pickup. Since courts have decided you have no expectation of privacy in trash left out on the street, police are free to rummage through it without probable cause or a warrant.
  • Exclusion of evidence. When you have been charged with a crime, your criminal defense attorney may file a motion to suppress any evidence that was taken from your trash. If the court finds that your trash was within your right to privacy and was taken without a warrant or probable cause, that trash cannot be used as evidence against you.

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