Can the police go through your trash without a warrant?

Police can gather evidence for an investigation from just about anywhere. Many times, items that the average person would never consider a legal risk end up playing a role in someone’s conviction.

For example, the police could potentially pull fingerprints off of a magazine in your garbage or get your DNA off of a cotton swab or a discarded coffee cup. The items that you throw in the garbage could be a veritable treasure trove of evidence in the hands of investigators.

Don’t you have a right to privacy? Is it legal for officers to dig through your trash without a warrant or your permission?

The location of the trash impacts the legality of the search

You have the basic right to expect privacy in your own home. Whether you rent an apartment or own a stand-alone property, police generally can’t violate your right to privacy without permission from you or a warrant. However, when you place your trash in a receptacle outside, police can sometimes go through it.

Where you keep the receptacle and when police search matters quite a bit. If your trash bin is in your garage, on your porch or otherwise near your home, rather than at the edge of your property, the police may not be able to search it. Your curtilage or the property outdoors that is part of your living space has the same expectation of privacy as indoor spaces. Police can’t search your trash containers while they are technically part of your curtilage.

Trash receptacles kept far from your home and waste containers set out on the curb for collection, however, are vulnerable to legal searches by law enforcement or even private investigators. Police who show up right before the trash collectors can arguably take what they want from your refuse.

If you believe that an illegal search has led to your criminal charges, discussing your concerns in-depth can give you an idea about whether or not law enforcement violated your rights. If you can show that your garbage was reasonably part of the curtilage of your home, you could potentially ask the courts to throw out any evidence obtained from an illegal search. Challenging evidence is often part of a comprehensive criminal defense strategy.