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Can the police look through trash for evidence of drug crimes?

On Behalf of | Oct 18, 2023 | Drug Crimes

The items in someone’s possession can sometimes help the state find grounds to prosecute that person. As a result, police officers who suspect someone of criminal activity will often ask to search a home or a vehicle. If they cannot obtain permission to do so, then sometimes they’ll go to a judge to request a warrant. However, not every suspicion justifies a warrant. Police officers may not yet have the probable cause a judge would require to grant them a warrant. Officers may then try to find items that implicate an individual without getting their permission or obtaining a search warrant to begin building a case.

What someone throws out in the trash could include items that seem to have a connection to the illegal drug trade, so trash is often a very promising outlet for evidence. Can officers go through someone’s trash bins in their pursuit of evidence or the probable cause they need to get a warrant?

Searching someone’s trash might be legal

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, which would include searches conducted without a warrant. People have a general right to privacy when in their own homes, and police officers should not infringe on that right. However, there are ways for an officer to search someone’s personal property without necessarily violating the Fourth Amendment.

Going through someone’s trash is a possible workaround for officers trying to connect someone to illegal activity without anything that constitutes probable cause. Items in someone’s trash, including individual packaging or possibly empty containers of chemicals, might make police officers suspect that they have some degree of involvement in the drug trade.

The police going through someone’s trash to look for evidence is a well-known practice. There have been court rulings on this exact issue. The Supreme Court has established that police officers can search trash bins when they are out at the curb for pickup. However, when a trash bin is next to someone’s garage or behind their fence, it still has the protection of privacy that the home would have. The areas immediately adjacent to the home on the outside are part of its curtilage. Police officers cannot search trash bins still on someone’s property without a warrant, but they can search bins that someone has set out for trash day.

Those who are familiar with the rules that govern police searches may be able to identify ways in which law enforcement professionals may have violated their rights. And, ultimately, proving that a police officer conducted an illegal search might prevent prosecutors from using the evidence they gathered during that search at a criminal trial.