Question: Our homeowner association development has a mix of condos, townhomes and single-family homes. We are not a gated community. Owners put garbage and recycled items into trash cans provided by the city. Depending on where the units are located, owners put their trash bins out on the curb in front of the single-family homes or in alleyways directly behind the townhouses or condominium units. Trash bins are collected by city trash collectors.
It so happens, I also have the nosiest neighbors on the planet living in my development. Because of their overactive imaginations and ridiculous suspicious minds, I've caught police and owners going through my trash and others' trash, taking things out and walking away with them. I don't want anyone going through my personal trash!
Doesn't the 4th Amendment prohibit warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection? Don't the police need a warrant to search through private trash, and is it legal for owners to go through other owners' trash and take things?
Answer: The 4th Amendment governing "unreasonable searches and seizures" states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." That titanic phrase is then interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unfortunately the law offers very little protection for things that are discarded or placed out in the open for collection by a third party. In the precedent-setting California vs. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled: "The [Constitution's] 4th Amendment does not prohibit warrantless search and seizure of garbage which has been left for collection outside the curtilage of a home." Continuing, "it is common knowledge that … garbage 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 Greenwood ruling stated that "what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of 4th Amendment protection," reasoning that the respondent, Billy Greenwood, exposed his garbage to the public sufficiently to defeat his claim to 4th Amendment protection and that there is no subjective expectation of privacy in his garbage that society accepts as objectively reasonable. It further explained that the refuse was placed "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. Accordingly, having deposited their garbage in an area particularly suited for public inspection and, in a manner of speaking, public consumption, for the express purpose of having strangers take it, [defendant] could have had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the inculpatory items that they discarded."
Greenwood had discarded some drug paraphernalia in his private trash bin. Without the benefit of legal dumpster diving and the evidence discovered there, the police would not have had probable cause to search his home. Since he voluntarily left his trash for collection in an area particularly suited for public inspection, his claimed expectation of privacy in the items that he discarded was not objectively reasonable.
Moreover, Greenwood placed his refuse at the curb for the express purpose of conveying it to a third party, the trash collector, who might himself have sorted through it or permitted others, such as the police, to do so.
Given the court's disposition, if a search of your trash produces evidence that is used against you, then you have very little hope of fighting it. Instead, take pains to watch what you throw out and where you throw it out. Keeping trash bins closer to your home before a scheduled pick-up may offer less exposure of your personal information during that time. But as the court stressed, it is unlikely anything can prevent other owners — especially nosy ones — from snooping through your trash bins once they are subject to public access.
While it is important to shred sensitive paper documents before discarding them into trash bins, even shredding can be put back together using special software that reconstructs the shredded document.
Some municipalities have anti-scavenging laws preventing the public from removing items from private trash receptacles. These laws won't stop the police and they certainly won't stop dedicated snoopers intent on getting in your business and taking your things.