On May 16, 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers, without a warrant, have the right to inspect curbside rubbish for evidence. ?Justice Byron R. White?s opinion for the majority said the privacy of garbage bags left outside the home and its immediate surroundings is not protected by the Fourth Amendment because people have no ?subjective expectation of privacy? in their garbage ?that society accepts as objectively reasonable?? (Taylor 559-560). The Supreme Court?s ruling on curbside rubbish is fair because people voluntarily leave their trash at the curb for collection.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states ?The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.? This basically means police officers cannot come into a home and just rummage through personal belongings. However, many people feel the Supreme Court?s ruling is a violation of the Fourth Amendment because they feel rummaging through garbage is rummaging through their personal belongings. A person?s trash is private and can reveal very personal information. ?A search of trash, like a search of the bedroom, can relate intimate details about sexual practices, health and personal hygiene. A single bag of trash testifies eloquently to the eating, reading and recreational habits of the person who produced it? (Krier 555). However, this same trash can also provide the only clue police can find to bust a criminal. Safety should be more important than a little privacy.
As long as police officers are not using items like bank statements or credit card applications for their personal advantage, there really is no reason for anyone to be worried about the trash searches. There should be no reason a person should feel this ruling has violated their rights unless he or she has something to hide. ?Teltec?s Grant advised that those who wish to keep their secrets should use paper shredders and then soak what?s been shredded? (557). Your trash speaks the truth about your life. ??It [garbage] is the single most useful tool to obtain information regarding the private lives of individuals,? said Armand Grant, president of the Teltec Investigations? (555).
People may be worried about items in their trash that do not belong to them. Police may find evidence in a homeowner?s trash that could be from a houseguest or anyone else who may have been in their home. Evidence found in the trash should give probable cause for a warrant; however, it isn?t fair for the police officer to suspect a homeowner of a crime just because evidence was found in their trash. Trash may be personal, but it isn?t exactly private. The specific item found in the trash could belong to anyone who was in or around that home at any given time. ??Just because there is a garbage can behind a person?s house doesn?t mean it?s their garbage,? Rathje said. ?My response to any kind of law enforcement search is that I would be unsure of the value of the results. If you?ve put your garbage out in a public area, people can take things out or put things in?? (558).
Police should be given every legal right to inspect curbside trash because every other member of the general public has that same right. ?White said a trash collector could himself have sorted through the defendant?s trash and that ?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?? (Taylor 560). A person should have no expectation of privacy in any information that he voluntarily turns over to a third party. If the garbage man had found the drug paraphernalia and turned it over to the police, the outcome of the case would most likely have been the same.
The ruling of the Supreme Court on curbside trash searches is fair. Loosing a little bit of privacy is a small price to pay for a safe and secure neighborhood. If this ruling were not put in place, there would be many more drug dealers still loose on the street. Which would you rather live with?
Krier, Beth Ann. ?As Supreme Court Rules Trash is an Open Book, Garbologists say how revealing that it can be.? Taking a Stand. Ed. Irene L. Clark. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1996. 554 – 559.
Taylor, Stuart. ?Court Rules Police May Search Trash. Says Garbage Placed Outside Home Not Private.? Taking a Stand. Ed. Irene L. Clark. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1996. 559 – 561