As a resident of the United States, you have certain rights – including the right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
In effect, this keeps the government out of your private business unless there’s probable cause that you may be involved in a crime. The police cannot just search your pockets, your car or your home just because they feel like it.
Like most things in the law, however, there are exceptions: Your trash is, quite often, fair game for searches.
When does trash stop being your private property?
You may put things in your trash that you don’t want anybody to see – but your right to control who looks through your trash ends as soon as the trash leaves the curtilage (an area so close to the home that it’s still considered private, despite being outside).
In other words, the moment that you put your trash on the curb where any passing stranger could pick through it, the expectation of privacy you may have had regarding what’s in those bags comes to an end. The police don’t need a warrant – or even a logical reason – to scoop everything up and go through it looking for evidence of some crime.
Disputes sometimes arise, however, about how exactly “curtilage” is defined since every situation is different. For example, if your trash bin was still in your driveway but not inside an enclosure, would it be unlawful for the police to search through it? Authorities and criminal defendants may not always agree.
If evidence from your trash is being used to build a criminal case against you, make sure that you get help from a criminal defense attorney to fully explore your legal options. It may still be possible to suppress what was found if the police were a bit too aggressive in their search.