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Can the police go through your trash?

On Behalf of | May 31, 2024 | Criminal Defense |

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.

This protection extends to your home and personal property, too. That means even your trash is protected from unwarranted intrusions – unless an exception applies.

The location of the trash matters

In general, any trash you dispose of in a public receptacle or drop in a public area enjoys no protections under the Fourth Amendment. The police can, therefore, swoop in at will and collect coffee cups, straws and paper wrappers to examine them for genetic evidence or fingerprints.

However, the police can also take any trash that you have left in the area outside the immediate vicinity of your home for collection by garbage companies. Once you’ve put your trash bins on the curb, it’s essentially “fair game” for the police. That can allow them to shift through any documents or other objects in your waste materials that might enhance their investigations.

On the other hand, the police are not permitted to dig into the trash in the “curtilage” of your home. The exact definition of what constitutes the curtilage of your home can vary according to the situation, but it is generally defined as the area immediately surrounding your actual dwelling. For example, if you normally keep your trash cans in a small area next to the garage before putting them on the curb each week, that area would likely be considered the curtilage of your home – and off-limits.

Unwarranted and illegal searches are a problem in many criminal cases, and it’s important to fight back when they happen. An experienced defense can help you understand if your rights were violated and the implications for your case.