California v. Greenwood: The Case and Its Impact

The Supreme Court decision on warrantless searches of trash

A garbage collector deposits a trash bag into a truck
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California v. Greenwood limited the scope of an individual's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the 1989 case, the Supreme Court ruled that police may search garbage left for collection without a warrant because an individual cannot claim to have an expectation of privacy over their trash.

Facts of the Case

In 1984, federal drug enforcement agents tipped off a local police detective, Jenny Stracner, that a Laguna Beach resident, Billy Greenwood, was going to receive a truckload of drugs at his home. When Stracner looked into Greenwood, she uncovered neighbors' complaints that many vehicles briefly stopped in front of Greenwood’s home throughout the night. Stracner surveilled Greenwood’s home and witnessed the vehicular traffic mentioned in the complaints.

However, this suspicious traffic alone was not enough for a search warrant. On April 6, 1984, Stracner contacted the local trash collector. She asked him to clean out his truck, collect the bags left on the curb outside of Greenwood’s home, and deliver them to her. When she opened up the bags, she found evidence of narcotics usage. The police used the evidence to obtain a search warrant for Greenwood’s home.

While searching Greenwood’s residence, the investigators uncovered drugs and proceeded to arrest Greenwood and one other person. Both posted bail and returned to Greenwood’s residence; the late night traffic outside of Greenwood’s house persisted.

In May of the same year, a different investigator, Robert Rahaeuser, followed in the first detective’s footsteps by asking the trash collectors to obtain Greenwood’s trash bags once again. Rahaeuser sorted through the garbage for evidence of drug use and reiterated the evidence to receive a search warrant for Greenwood’s home. The police arrested Greenwood a second time.

Constitutional Issues

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures and requires probable cause for police to obtain a search warrant. The question at the center of the case is whether or not the police violated Greenwood’s Fourth Amendment right when conducting a warrantless search of the trash bags. Would the average citizen have a right to privacy over the contents of a trash bag left on the curb in front of a house?

The Arguments

Counsel on behalf of California argued that, once Greenwood removed the trash bags from his house and left them on the curb, he could not reasonably expect the contents to remain private. The bags were in plain view of the public and could be accessed by anyone without Greenwood’s knowledge. Searching through the trash was reasonable, and the evidence uncovered during the search provided probable cause for a search of the home.

Greenwood argued that officers violated his Fourth Amendment protections by searching his trash without his consent or a warrant. He based his arguments on a 1971 California Supreme Court case, People v. Krivda, which ruled that warrantless trash searches were illegal. Greenwood contended that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy because he concealed his trash in black bags and left them on the curb specifically for the trash collector.

Majority Opinion

Justice Byron White delivered the 6-2 opinion on behalf of the court. The Court adopted California’s view on the case, ruling that police could search the trash without a warrant. Greenwood did not have an expectation of privacy over the contents of the trash bags once he placed them in public view on the curb, defeating any Fourth Amendment claims.

In the decision, Justice White wrote, “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.” He argued that the police cannot be expected to avert their gaze from activity  that any other member of society would be able to observe. The Court based this assessment on Katz v. United, which found that if a person “knowingly exposes” something to the public, even within their home, they cannot claim to have an expectation of privacy. In this case, the defendant knowingly placed his trash in public view for a third party to transport it, thus relinquishing any reasonable expectation of privacy.

Dissenting Opinion

In their dissent, Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan echoed the intent of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution: to protect citizens from unnecessary police intrusions. They opined that allowing warrantless trash searches would lead to arbitrary police monitoring without judicial oversight.

The Justices based their dissent on previous rulings concerning packages and bags carried in public, arguing that regardless of the shape or material, a trash bag was still a bag. When Greenwood attempted to conceal items within it, he had an expectation that those items would remain private. Marshall and Brennan also stated that the actions of scavengers and snoops should not affect the Supreme Court’s ruling, because such behavior was not civilized and should not be considered a standard for society.

Impact

Today, California v. Greenwood still provides the basis for warrantless police searches of trash. The ruling followed in the footsteps of previous Court decisions which sought to narrow the right to privacy. In the majority opinion, the Court emphasized the importance of the “reasonable person” test, reiterating that any intrusion upon a person’s privacy must be considered reasonable by an average member of society. The larger question in terms of the Fourth Amendment – whether illegally obtained evidence could be used in court – remained unanswered until the establishment of the exclusionary rule in Weeks v. United in 1914.