Question: Is It Illegal To Go Through Someone’s Trash?
Written by ITL Attorney, Posted in Common Law
As a general rule, it is legally permissible to go through the trash of another person. However, there are a couple nuances worth noting. First, if the person going through the trash is a police officer or one who is acting on the behalf of a police officer, then United States Supreme Court case law is quite clear: it is legal, constitutional, and not even considered a “search.” (see California v. Greenwood, 486 US 35). The Supreme Court has consistently held that an expectation of privacy does not give rise to Fourth Amendment constitutional protection unless society is prepared to accept that expectation as objectively reasonable. Therefore, since the Court did not believe society was prepared to accept an expectation of privacy in the garbage we put out to the curb for collection as objectively reasonable, it is not unlawful for an officer or his agent to go through such trash. Second, a private citizen will not likely go to jail for simply rummaging through the trash of another person. However, if he does anything that the state he lives in finds unlawful during the course of his rummaging, he could face criminal charges, serious penalties, and even jail time.