Police may search trash bags left on a curb without getting a warrant, the Supreme Court said Monday, ruling 6-2 that citizens do not have "an expectation of privacy in their garbage."
The high court, in an opinion by Justice Byron White, reversed a ruling by the California Court of Appeal throwing out evidence obtained by police during a search of two suspected drug dealers' garbage.The ruling means California authorities may reinstate narcotics charges against Billy Greenwood and Dyanne Van Houten.
At issue in the case was whether police may search trash left for collection outside a home without first getting a search warrant.
The Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures generally requires police to obtain a search warrant based on "probable cause" before searching homes, suitcases and other private property for evidence.
But the court held a warrant is not necessary when it comes to trash.
"The warrantless search and seizure of the garbage bags left at the curb . . . would violate the Fourth Amendment only if the respondents manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in their garbage that society accepts as objectively reasonable," the court said.
"Here we conclude that respondents exposed their garbage to the public sufficiently to defeat their claim to Fourth Amendment protection. 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."
The garbage case arose in 1984 when police got a warrant to search the Laguna Beach home of Greenwood and Van Houten and found a stash of cocaine.
The charges were dismissed after the California Superior Court held the search warrant was improperly based on evidence gleaned from searches of the defendants trash, which they had left on the curb.
The California Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal, ruling that citizens have a right to privacy in garbage left outside their homes for pickup by trash collectors.
In assessing whether a search of garbage is permissible, the Supreme Court said, police should evaluate such factors as whether the garbage is generally available to members of the public.
"The police cannot be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public," the court said.
In other action Monday, the court:
Unanimously upheld the federal government's right to regulate cable television in a defeat for cities such as New York and Miami that wanted more power in such matters.
Ruled 7-1 that a Mississippi law imposing a 15 percent penalty on parties who appeal money judgments unsuccessfully does not violate the Constitution's equal protection clause.
Let stand a ruling that a New Jersey county jail must provide the option of abortion for pregnant prison inmates.