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Can the police search someone’s trash without their consent?

On Behalf of | Jul 1, 2024 | Criminal Law

Police officers can find evidence in the strangest of places. Seemingly benign objects can connect someone to criminal activity and become the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. Thankfully, there are many rules that limit when and how police officers conduct searches. They usually need a warrant to search someone’s home or at least permission to enter and go through the property. In some cases, officers could justify a warrantless search if they have probable cause to suspect specific criminal activities.

Yet, occasionally, officers gather evidence without a warrant, probable cause or permission. Sometimes, that evidence is usable in court, and other times it is not. Can police officers use evidence gained by searching through someone’s garbage without a warrant?

Some searches of trash are lawful

There are a few scenarios in which police officers can search and use someone’s refuse during an investigation. One of those scenarios involves the person being in state custody or present at state facilities.

Investigators or police officers might offer someone a cup of coffee or a bottle of water. If the person later disposes of the cup or the empty bottle, officers could attempt to obtain fingerprints or genetic evidence from the discarded items. Police officers might also be able to go through the trash at someone’s place of employment with the permission of the business as opposed to the individual subject to the investigation.

Finally, police officers can sometimes search the trash at an individual’s home. Its location is what determines the legality of the search. If someone has put a trash bin out for collection, they have effectively abandoned those items. Therefore, police officers could access the refuse in someone’s trash bin as a means of connecting them to criminal activity.

However, when the trash bin is still in someone’s backyard or their garage, it is not appropriate for officers to search it. The trash container and its contents are part of the home’s curtilage. They have the same basic legal protections as the interior of the home. The outdoor spaces that serve as part of someone’s living space are not subject to warrantless searches in most cases.

Those facing criminal charges backed by evidence that officers gathered from the garbage, such as drug charges, may need help preparing a criminal defense strategy. Learning more about the rules that govern searches can help people identify when police officers may have violated their rights.