Given that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives some pretty broad protections, most people are justified in believing that their homes really are their castles – and the police can’t search them without a warrant.
However, what about your trash? You may be surprised to find out that your trash could be fair game for the authorities – even if you haven’t yet set it on the curb.
When is your trash no longer “your” trash?
“Trash pulls” are a common investigative technique in law enforcement, and it’s used widely in cases where drug manufacturing or dealing is suspected. It’s also used to try to obtain DNA from targets who are suspected of serious offenses, including sex crimes and murder.
The legality of such a search, however, depends largely on the situation. In general, you lose all reasonable expectations of privacy (and your Fourth Amendment protections) with regard to trash you’ve put out on the curb for collection. That curb is public property, so you’re essentially abandoning it there.
But, what about trash cans that are accessible to the police but not on the curb? Maybe you store your trash cans on the curtilage next to your home. Do the police still have the right to search it, even though it hasn’t left your property?
According to case law in Florida, there’s no clear-cut rule that applies to every situation. Instead, the court has to consider whether or not the garbage was so readily accessible to the public in such a way that any expectation of privacy is really meaningless.
This means, for example, that if you just sit the trash bins in your drive but adjacent to the street, the police may have the right to search them – since that would still generally be publicly accessible. If your cans are behind a small enclosure, however, that would indicate that they’re probably not.
When evidence found in your trash is used to justify a warrant for additional searches, it’s time to explore the possibility of an aggressive defense of your rights.