California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988)
In California v. Greenwood, the police searched a defendant’s garbage bags left on the curb. The Supreme Court concluded that the Fourth Amendment did not apply, and thus the police are able to search people’s trash with no limitations and without the judicial oversight of a warrant. The Fourth Amendment only applies when a person has an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. The Court reasoned that there was no reasonable expectation in the trash because ‘‘t is common knowledge that plastic bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.’’ The Court also reasoned that the trash was left at the curb ‘‘for the express purpose of conveying it to a third party, the trash collector, who might himself have sorted through [the] trash or permitted others, such as the police, to do so.’’
The Court’s reasoning equates privacy with total secrecy. If anything is exposed to others in any way, even if others are unlikely to see it, then according to the Court, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. According to the dissenting opinion, a study of a person’s trash can reveal much about an individual’s personality and lifestyle. People often throw out very private items, such as prescription drug bottles, contraceptive devices, old financial documents, personal letters, and so on.
DANIEL J. SOLOVE
References and Further Reading
- LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure. 142–143 (3d ed. 2000)
- Solove, Daniel J., Digital Dossiers and the Dissipation of Fourth Amendment Privacy, Southern California Law Review 75 (2002): 1083–1168
See also Expectation of Privacy; Search (General Definition)