Strategic Defense
From A Former Prosecutor

When can the police go through your trash looking for evidence?

On Behalf of | Jul 31, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Nobody likes the idea of their privacy being violated, especially by the authorities. In fact, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually specifically protects you against “unreasonable” searches of your property.

But does that protection extend to your trash? Here are the things to keep in mind about warrantless searches of your garbage.

“Trash pulls” are a common law enforcement investigative technique

When the police have a target in an investigation, it’s very common for them to come by on that person’s trash night and gather up everything they’ve left for the garbage collectors – and that’s generally legal as long as the trash was left on the curb or elsewhere on city property.

Once you put your garbage out for collection, it’s legally considered “abandoned” where it can be accessed by anybody. That means, as far as that load of trash is concerned, you lose the broad expectation of privacy that you had up until that moment. 

The police cannot come onto your property and search through your garbage

You do retain that expectation of privacy, however, when you put your trash in a bin that’s on the “curtilage” of your home, which is generally defined as any connected property. 

In other words, the police cannot simply wait for you to put a bag in the trash can you have next to your garage and then stroll up and take it. Absent your permission or a warrant, they usually have to wait until you move that bag away from your property with the clear intent of disposing of it. 

The police use trash pulls to look for genetic evidence in violent crimes, evidence of drug manufacturing or dealing and paperwork that might be important in white collar crimes, among other things. While trash pulls are frequently a part of their investigation, they aren’t always properly done – and that could provide an opening for your defense.