Can Police Search Through Your Trash?
For the most part, yes, police can search through your trash. If you’ve read some of the previous posts about Search Warrants or the Exceptions to the Need for Search Warrants, then you’d know why. If you haven’t read those, go back and read one of them. Searches without a warrant by police are presumed to be illegal. This is a Constitutional protection we have. So, what if that search happens to be trash?
Trash, Dumpsters, Curbside Garbage, and the Police
First, let’s use an example to show what a person’s rights are when it comes to their garbage. Let’s say that John likes to make pot brownies at his house. John puts all the garbage into bags, in his garbage bin, and hauls it to the curb for recycling day. Maybe he puts it into a dumpster instead. Either way, the same laws apply. In the garbage bags there are marijuana seeds, stems, and buttery oil from making the brownies. Once the bags are in the bin and at the curb, what are your rights to that garbage? Well, in Texas, police can search through your curbside trash.
Expectation of Privacy in Your Trash
Under the law, when it comes to searches, police can’t violate your Fourth Amendment rights when you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the place or thing. In this case, John would probably have no reasonable expectation of privacy in his trash. Why? Because trash is usually considered abandoned. John would have no justifiable reason to challenge the police from picking through his garbage. When he brought it out to the curb, he was basically telling the whole world “hey, I don’t want this anymore!”
For property to be legally searched by police when it is abandoned, two things must exist:
- The person who abandons the items or thing must actually intend to abandon it. Simply dropping something on accident doesn’t mean you abandoned it.
- Second, the reason for the thing or items being abandoned can’t be due to police misconduct.
Why is that the case?
If you’re going to give up all rights to something, the Courts want to make sure that you actually intend to do that. Also, they Courts don’t want to encourage the police from misbehaving. Using are example above, John voluntarily brought his trash can to the curb with the marijuana seeds, stems, and oil in the can. Next, the police didn’t force John to bring the evidence to the curb.
What happens when police search John’s garbage?
Texas Police on patrol can stop and inspect your trash bins. The trash bins are open to the world. How often have you seen your neighbor come over on garbage day and take a piece of furniture or a lamp from your curb? Police can do the same thing. They can dig through your trash for evidence of crimes being committed or crimes that were committed. In John’s case, the police could use the evidence of marijuana in John’s trash can to start an investigation or surveillance on John’s home. This might snowball into bigger things where police watch the comings and goings at John’s house. If he has many visitors, at irregular hours, and they stay for brief times, that may be evidence of drug dealing going on. Later, police may request a Search Warrant from a Judge to search John’s home. So, when it comes to the question, Can Police Search Through Your Trash?, the answer is – Yes.