Can Police Search Your Garbage?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, § 12 of Florida’s Constitution prohibit law enforcement from conducting unreasonable searches or seizures of our person, houses, papers, and effects. And the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that a search is unreasonable if it is conducted without a warrant, supported by probable cause. Some exceptions apply in situations involving automobiles, exigent circumstances, search incident to arrest, and others.  


But do the police need a search warrant to look in your trash? The answer to that question depends on the specific facts of each case. At Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law, experienced, criminal defense lawyers look at the smallest details of every case to identify facts that will be the key focus of their defense.  


This blog post explains exactly how small factual differences affect the way the law applies to police searching through your garbage. 



Does Anyone Have an Expectation of Privacy in Their Trash? 


One of the most important facts that determine whether police can search your trash is where the trash is located. It seems obvious that law enforcement officers cannot go through your kitchen garbage can. Without a warrant, the police could not search the trash inside your home.  


But the law also protects the garbage (or any other container) that remains “within the curtilage” of your home. The curtilage is anywhere on your property surrounding the house. That means the trash is safe from police searches when it is in your garage, on your porch, or in your yard.  


Property owners and residents have “an expectation of privacy” in their homes and in areas within the boundaries of their property. But when do you lose your expectation of privacy? 


In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the trash they put out at the curb for collection. Several courts in Florida had already reached that same decision a full eight years earlier.


And the measure is not what you personally intended for your trash. Any person who places their trash at the curb for collection has forfeited their expectation of privacy. When the trash collector arrives and lifts the trash can, they are free to rummage through it if they choose to. And if the trash collector can search through your trash, so can the police. 


In one Florida case, a nearby fire caused police to urge a man to leave his home carrying a black box. The man walked some distance before placing the box in someone else’s garbage can. Police thought that was suspicious and retrieved the box. When the man approached and told police the box was his, the police suggested he identify the contents and open it to ensure he was the owner. He refused. When they offered to give him a receipt, he refused again. 


When the police later opened the box at headquarters, they found a .45 caliber UZI pistol, two .45 caliber high-capacity magazines, more than three grams of cocaine (both powder and crack), $1251 in cash, the man’s ID, and some other personal items. The man was arrested, and his lawyer moved to suppress the evidence arguing that the man intended to keep his box. He had simply placed the box in the garbage temporarily. The court rejected the claim, holding that his personal intent was not controlling. Instead, the law hinged on whether a reasonable person would have an expectation of privacy in the box when placing it into a stranger’s trash container.  


Some Facts That Could Change the Answer 


Variations in the facts can produce different results. What if someone other than the resident put the trash can out? Suppose a neighbor thought they would do a favor for you and put out your trash. Did you still forfeit your expectation of privacy? If you told your spouse not to put the trash out, but they did so anyway, does that change the legality of a police “trash pull?” 


Would things be different if the police pulled the trash out of a dumpster behind your apartment house? How could the evidence be tied to you?  


And what would police need to find in a trash bag to take the investigation further? The police use what they find in the trash to build probable cause for a judge to issue a search warrant. What must they find? How much must they find? 


Your criminal defense attorney’s talent, experience, and legal knowledge are keys to answering these questions. 


Do the Police Need Probable Cause to Search Your Trash in Florida? 


Keep in mind that some states have constitutions that extend more protections from police searches than the U.S. Constitution provides. For example, Vermont requires police to obtain a search warrant before they can search inside a person’s trash, even if it is on the curb waiting to be collected. That is NOT the law in Florida. Florida law permits the police to go through the trash if it is left out for the garbage collector.  


In Florida, police do not need probable cause to search trash in which there is no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy.  


A brief review of this issue on other websites illustrates that some of them misstate the law in Florida. By wrongly suggesting that probable cause is required before trash left for collection can be searched by police, it’s possible that a defendant could hire a lawyer who is unfamiliar with Florida law. 


Learn More > What to Do if Law Enforcement Wants to Search Your Home  


Get Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys Who Know Florida Law 


You need to trust your criminal defense lawyer with your life. At the Stechschulte Nell Law Firm in Tampa, defending every client is always our top priority. You and your family need to know that your lawyer has the expertise and experience necessary to provide the highest quality defense possible.  


Defending a person charged with a crime involves applying our years of legal study and courtroom practice to the facts of their case. Understanding the law is essential to the success of every defense.  


Call Stechschulte Nell today for a case review at 813-280-1244. We are ready to defend your case.  


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