No Right of Privacy in Garbage, High Court Rules in Drug Case : 6-2 Ruling Backs Police in Laguna Beach Search

Associated Press

The Supreme Court ruled today that Americans have no right of privacy to their garbage once it is put out for collection.

By a 6-2 vote, the justices reinstated drug-dealing charges against two Southern California residents. Police discovered evidence of narcotics in their garbage.

“The police cannot reasonably be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public,” Justice Byron R. White said for the court.

“It is common knowledge that plastic garbage 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,” White said.


The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution generally requires police to obtain search warrants from a judge before conducting searches.

But White said the constitutional protection does not apply to discarded trash because people have no “expectation of privacy” for their garbage.

Brennan, Marshall Dissent

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said, “Scrutiny of another’s trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior. I suspect, therefore, that members of our society will be shocked to learn that the court, the ultimate guarantor of liberty, deems unreasonable our expectation that the aspects of our private lives that are concealed safely in a trash bag will not become public.”


He was joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Joining White were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Harry A. Blackmun, Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the newest member of the court, did not take part in deciding the case.

Today’s ruling overturned decisions by California courts that said police officers must obtain warrants before searching discarded garbage.


Police sifted through garbage collected from outside the home of Billy Greenwood in Laguna Beach on April 6 and May 4, 1984.

They found drug paraphernalia and drug residue and then obtained a warrant to search Greenwood’s house.

Drugs Seized

There they seized marijuana, hashish and cocaine and charged Greenwood and Dyanne Van Houten, who was also present, with narcotics possession.


State courts threw out the charges after ruling that police violated the rights of Greenwood and Van Houten.

The state courts relied in part on a 1971 California Supreme Court decision that said residents of the state have an expectation of privacy in their garbage.

The effect of that ruling was overturned by Proposition 8, a 1982 initiative known as “The Victims’ Bill of Rights,” in which California voters approved the use of police evidence unless it was obtained in violation of federal restrictions.

In other action, the court:


--Let stand a ruling that pregnant prison inmates have the right to free abortions if they cannot afford them.

The justices, without comment, refused to hear arguments by prison officials in Monmouth County, N.J., that no such right exists if an abortion is unnecessary to preserve an inmate’s life or health.

--Upheld a $1.8-million judgment against an insurance company ordered to pay the money to an injured Mississippi man whose $20,000 claim it wrongfully rejected.

But in one of the most closely watched cases of the year, the justices declined to decide the constitutionality of such enormous punitive damage awards in personal injury cases.