California v. Greenwood

Following is the case brief for California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988)

Case Summary of California v. Greenwood:

  • Police seized the trash bags left outside of Respondent Greenwood’s house.  Evidence of drug activity was found in the bags, and that information was used to obtain a warrant to search Greenwood’s house.  That occurred on two separate occasions.
  • The search of Greenwood’s house revealed further evidence of drug activity.
  • Greenwood moved to suppress the evidence at his trial, claiming that the initial search of his trash bags was unlawful in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
  • The trial court suppressed the evidence, and the State Court of Appeal agreed.  The California Supreme Court did not hear an appeal.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal.  It held that a warrantless search of a person’s trash bags outside the curtilage of his or her home does not violate the Fourth Amendment because a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those trash bags.

California v. Greenwood Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Acting on a tip that Greenwood was involved in drug trafficking, police instructed the trash collector who collects Greenwood’s trash to turn over the trash left at the curb on two occasions.  Both times, the police discovered evidence of drug trafficking in the trash bags and obtained a warrant to search Greenwood’s home.  During both searches, police found evidence of drug trafficking in the home.  Greenwood moved to suppress the drug evidence found in his home as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, and his rights under the California Constitution.

Procedural History:

  • The trial court suppressed the drug evidence resulting from the two searches.
  • The State Court of Appeal affirmed the suppression. The Court of Appeal noted that California law bars police from conducting warrantless trash searches but, due to a change in the California Constitution, suppression of evidence was not available as a remedy.  However, the Court of Appeal also found that the trash search violated the Fourth Amendment, and therefore suppression was appropriate.
  • The California Supreme Court did not take an appeal on the case.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Do the police violate the Fourth Amendment by conducting a warrantless search of a trash bag outside the curtilage of someone’s home?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the California Court of Appeal is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A warrantless search of a person’s trash outside the curtilage of his or her home does not violate the Fourth Amendment because a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those trash bags.

Reasoning:

Greenwood left his trash in an area for public inspection, therefore he does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those trash bags.  It is common knowledge that a trash bag on the curb can be opened and inspected by anyone from animals, to scavengers, to the trash collector himself.  The police, therefore, have the same access as the rest of the general public.  Moreover, many other federal and state courts of appeal that have looked at the issue have determined that there is no expectation of privacy in trash left on the curb.

Greenwood’s other argument, that a warrantless search of his trash violates the California Constitution and therefore should also violate the Fourth Amendment, is without merit.  The Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence does not hang on the conception of privacy of each State.  Each State is free to have privacy protection that goes beyond that provided by the federal law, but the Court only determines the reasonable expectation of privacy perceived by society as a whole.

Finally, Greenwood’s argument that the California Constitution, which takes away suppression of evidence as a remedy, violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause is also without merit.  Due process does not require the suppression of evidence as the only way in which to remedy police misconduct.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Brennan):

The Fourth Amendment has historically protected any sealed container from warrantless searches.  The trash bags in question here were sealed opaque bags that were expected to be quickly mixed with many other trash bags.  Further, just because these bags were used to discard, rather than transport, does not change the Fourth Amendment analysis.

Given the fact that a person’s trash reveals an incredible amount of information about a person’s private life, it is that much more important that the opaque bags here should be given Fourth Amendment protection.  Finally, with regard to a reasonable expectation of privacy, most people would be furious to find out that someone rifled through their trash.  Thus, we do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the trash bags we leave for the trash collector.

Significance:

California v. Greenwood is significant only because it gives another situation in which the Court has made the call as to what can be considered outside our “reasonable expectation of privacy,” which is fundamental to the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.  Thus, because of the well-known case of California v. Greenwood, we know that we do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the trash bags we leave out on the curb.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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