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Can the police really search your trash?

On Behalf of | Mar 20, 2024 | Criminal Defense |

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees your protection against any kind of unreasonable search and seizure – but how far does this really extend?

Most people don’t think that much about what they throw away – but your garbage can contain all kinds of evidence that could be used against you in a criminal trial. You may throw all kinds of things in your garbage assuming that it will be properly hauled away, never to see the light of day again.

The police, however, may have other ideas – and the law is tilted in their favor.

It all depends on where the trash is left

In general, once you have left your trash for collection, it’s considered “abandoned property,” and you lose whatever reasonable expectation of privacy you once had over its contents. 

This has largely been interpreted by the courts to mean that your trash remains your private property (and not subject to warrantless searches) only while it is:

  • In your house or garage 
  • In your pockets, bags, purse
  • In your car or other vehicles

Further, your trash is still considered your private property even once it’s been placed in a trash bin and set outside, so long as that trash can is in the area known as the “curtilage” of your home, or its immediate area. 

While exactly how “curtilage” is defined may be up for debate, you generally still have some expectation of privacy right until you actively release the trash from your control. At that point, the police can swoop in and do a “trash pull.” They can then rummage through your garbage to look for evidence of drug use or manufacturing, records that might show financial crimes or genetic evidence that could be used to tie you to violent offenses. 

If you’re worried about intrusive investigative tactics by the police, the wisest thing you can do to protect yourself is to be informed. Seeking legal guidance specific to your situation can help.