California v. Greenwood

486 U. S. 35

May 16, 1988

Greenwood was arrested on drug charges after police found evidence in the garbage bags he left at the curb. Although California law prohibited police from searching garbage without a warrant, state law also said there was no exclusionary rule for illegally obtained evidence. As a last resort, Greenwood argued that the evidence obtained from warrantless garbage search should be excluded based on the US Constitution.

But the Court ruled 6-2 that searching trash left at curbside did not require a warrant (Kennedy did not participate). Justice White said that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy for garbage bags because anyone – an animal, a snoop, to say nothing of garbage collectors themselves – could easily rummage through the trash and take something. Furthermore, loads of lower courts had already ruled that no warrant was needed to search garbage. White also smacked down two Hail Mary arguments as obviously incorrect – first, that the US Constitution should ban warrantless trash searches if a state’s law does, and second, that it was unconstitutional for California to have no exclusionary rule for state law violations.

Brennan threw a huge hissy fit in dissent, and was joined by Marshall. He said that virtually any other closed container is afforded an expectation of privacy, and that garbage bags should not be treated differently. Even if garbage bags can easily be opened by third parties, Brennan said, that’s still an insulting invasion of your privacy. Honestly, Brennan could have potentially convinced me, but his apocalyptic tone makes it hard to take him seriously. In the end, I do think warrantless searches of curbside garbage are probably a good thing.

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