~ why your neighbor’s garbage is yours, or not ~

The 1988 Supreme Court case California v. Greenwood found that garbage placed at the curbside was public property. The 1998 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Redmon (US DOJ brief), a case that originated in Illinois, affirms the Court’s earlier finding and expands the definition of curbside.

Recognizing the “fact-based” nature of the Fourth Amendment issue presented in this case, the court of appeals declined to “fashion some convenient rule to fit all situations.” Pet. App. I, at 5. Instead, the court looked to “all the factual circumstances of this case” in order to determine whether petitioner had an “objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in the garbage cans placed” in the common driveway near his garage. Id. at 6-7. Relying on this Court’s decision in California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), the court of appeals concluded that petitioner did not have such an expectation of privacy in his trash. Pet. App. I, at 10. The court explained that, like the defendant in Greenwood, petitioner had left his garbage in an area that was “very publicly exposed and accessible,” and had manifested his intent to abandon it by putting it out for collection by strangers. Pet. App. I, at 11-12. While the defendant in Greenwood had left his garbage cans at the curbside, the court held that the area outside of petitioner’s garage was the functional equivalent of the curbside area in Greenwood. Id. at 10; see also id. at 8-9. The court also rejected petitioner’s contention that the police needed a warrant to inspect his garbage because the trash cans, as they sat awaiting pick-up by trash collectors, were within the curtilage of petitioner’s home. The pertinent factors for determining whether an area is curtilage, the court of appeals noted, are “the proximity of the area to the home itself, the nature of the uses to which the [area] is put, whether the area is within an enclosure surrounding the home, and the steps the resident has taken to protect the area from observation by passersby.” Id. at 12 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “We believe our decision,” the court concluded, “passes all the tests.” Read the opinion

A recent Washington State Court of Appeals case comes to the opposite conclusion. This is based on prior state law. Interestingly, this case also springs from a criminal drug investigation.

At issue is a portion of the state constitution, which states: “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” Appellate Judge Frank Kurtz wrote: “Here, Mr. Sweeney had a reasonable expectation that his garbage would be collected from his curb, mixed with other garbage, and taken to a refuse facility.” Read the opinion

The published opinion in State of Washington v. Thomas Allen Sweeney summarizes the findings.

A Spokane County detective instructed a municipal garbage collector to place Thomas A. Sweeney’s garbage into an empty hopper and drive the garbage truck a few blocks away. There, the detective searched the garbage and found evidence used to obtain a search warrant for Mr. Sweeney’s residence. Mr. Sweeney was charged with the manufacture of methamphetamine; but the trial court suppressed the evidence obtained from the search of the garbage and terminated the case. On appeal, the State contends Mr. Sweeney had no privacy right protecting garbage hauled away by the municipal refuse collection service. In response, Mr. Sweeney asserts law enforcement should not be allowed to circumvent constitutionally-protected privacy rights by using another governmental employee to collect garbage for a search. Relying upon State v. Boland, 115 Wn.2d 571, 800P.2d 1112 (1990), we hold the search of Mr. Sweeney’s garbage violated article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution and affirm. Read the opinion

The Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Dunn identified the four factors that should guide the determination of the curtilage’s extent: “(1) the proximity of the area to the home; (2) whether the area is “included within an enclosure surrounding the home”;(3) the use of the area; and (4) the concealment of the area from the public.” Dunn, 480 U.S. at 301

Even shredded documents found at the curtilage are not private. Commercial entities cannot claim that their shredded documents, in a dumpster, 40 feet from public property and on a private road are private, if the business does not “take affirmative steps to exclude the public.” (U.S. v. Terrence Hall)

A few other state constitutions, such as New Hampshire’s, also have privacy provisions that bar the collection of garbage, other than as refuse, as interpreted by their state courts.

Please add any other relevant cases or corrections to my citations in the comments section.


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