Can the police legally look through my garbage?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 24, 2021

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The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that cops can search and seize abandoned property. In essence, once papers or contraband have been thrown into a trash receptacle, it is considered “abandoned” and anyone, including the police, can look through it and claim ownership. A trash search will not constitute an illegal search and seizure in terms of criminal law.

What is considered trash?

We’ve already established that the Supreme Court has given cops the okay to search and seize abandoned property. But what is considered abandoned varies somewhat by state, however, most require that you take an affirmative step to discard the illegal items or evidence.

For example, if you throw a list of your drug transactions in the trash bin inside your home, you are still maintaining control over the notes, meaning, you haven’t abandoned them yet. If the police come knocking on your door without a warrant, they can’t use the “abandoned” property or garbage exception to search the trash bins in your house.

Therefore, if the search of your home is an illegal search the evidence contained in the trash receptacles will be excluded.

If you later dump the contents of the same trash can into a larger trash can in your backyard, you will probably have the same protection because your yard has many of the same protections as your residence from illegal search and seizures.

However, once you dump the contents of the larger trash bin into the dumpster in your alley or you place the trash bin where the trash collectors usually come to pick it up, you have taken an affirmative step to abandon the property. Once abandoned, officers can search and seize any evidence found in your garbage.

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What about trash discarded away from home?

If your garbage is combined with garbage in a trash receptacle from neighbors, the police must still show that the items found came from your house. They must affirmatively link the evidence to you. As a rule of thumb, if there’s anything you don’t want to come back and bite you, invest in a shredder.

Some people try to avoid the abandoned garbage rule by disposing of things in their employer’s waste baskets. Not a good move either. You have an even lesser expectation of privacy in the workplace. As long as your employer is okay with the police going through your trash, the employer’s consent is good enough.

Even without consent, you are still making an affirmative act to dispose of, or lose ownership of, the garbage.

Instead of contesting the search of garbage you have effectively abandoned, your best option is probably to contest the affirmative link to you or your home. Ironically, many police officers will go through the hassle of sorting out your garbage, but will rarely go to the next step and fingerprint the items found to make sure they are yours.

Can the police legally look through my garbage? A Final Word

An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you review other options available in your jurisdiction, so consult a criminal defense attorney in your area today. 

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