California v. Rooney

483 U. S. 307

June 23, 1987

Suspecting Rooney of illegal gambling, cops searched in his apartment complex’s communal dumpster. Evidence found in the garbage formed part of the basis for a search warrant. Rooney claimed that the garbage search violated the Fourth Amendment. A California court held that the garbage investigation was invalid, but that the police had enough independent evidence to constitute probable cause for the search warrant regardless. The prosecutors appealed, attempting to get the ruling on the garbage evidence overturned.

In a per curiam opinion, the Court held 6-3 that certiorari was improvidently granted. Because the search warrant was still valid, the garbage issue was essentially moot. California’s argued that they might desire to introduce the garbage evidence at Rooney’s trial, but the Court deemed this state interest too remote to merit a judicial decision on the Fourth Amendment issue. Marshall did not join the opinion, but silently concurred in judgment.

White dissented from the Court’s refusal to decide, and was joined by Rehnquist and Powell. He pointed out that the garbage question was the main focal point in the lower court rulings, and was thus enough of a separate issue from the search warrant’s validity that higher judicial review was appropriate. Turning to the merits, White opined that Rooney retained no privacy expectation for whatever he placed in the garbage bin. Since animals or scavengers can freely prowl through garbage, policemen can too. He accordingly thought there was no Fourth Amendment violation.

Well, this is another one of those asinine justiciability cases. The Court really needs to give up the charade, and just start issuing advisory opinions. The sky will not fall – lots of US states and foreign nations do it. And more to the point, advisory opinions are what the Court effectively does anyway. With thousands of cases before them, they select a few dozen involving the doctrinal issues they want to answer. One year later, the Court found another case out of California involving the garbage issue, and reached the merits at last. But there was no good reason for abstaining in 1987. All it did was waste everyone’s time and everyone’s money.

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