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California v. Greenwood


The ruling settled the question of whether a person's trash, placed on the curb for collection, could be searched without a warrant. The expectation of privacy does not guarantee protection by the Fourth Amendment unless society considers that expectation to be reasonable. It is not reasonable to believe that trash placed at the curb will remain private.

In February of 1984, a criminal suspect informed a federal drug enforcement agent that a shipment of illegal drugs was on its way to the home of Billy Greenwood. Also, a neighbor had complained that numerous cars arrived at Greenwood's home late at night and stayed only a few minutes. Acting on this information, Investigator Jenny Stracner of the Laguna Beach Police Department observed vehicles making brief stops at the house at night. She followed a truck from Greenwood's house to a suspected drug dealing location.

On 6 April 1984, Stracner asked the trash collector to bring her Greenwood's plastic garbage bags, which Greenwood had left for pick-up on the curb. The trash collector did so. Stracner searched through the garbage and found items associated with drug use--razor blades, straws with cocaine residue, and phone bills noting calls to people with drug records. Listing her finds in an affidavit, Stracner obtained a search warrant. The police searched the house, found quantities of hashish and cocaine, and arrested Greenwood and Dyanne Van Houten on felony narcotics charges. Greenwood posted bail and was soon free. Once again, the police received complaints about frequent late-night visits to the house.

On 4 May 1984, Investigator Robert Rahaeuser got Greenwood's trash bags from the garbage collector. A search of the rubbish revealed evidence of illegal drug use. Rahaeuser obtained a search warrant, and the police found more drugs and evidence of drug dealing. They again arrested Greenwood.

The Superior Court of Orange County dismissed the charges against Greenwood because People v. Krivda (1971) held that trash searches without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution. The court felt that without the search of the trash, the police would not have had probable cause to search the home. The California Court of Appeals agreed with the Superior Court. The California Supreme Court declined to review the case.

The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures and states that probable cause must exist for a warrant to be issued. The Fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution to guard against arbitrary police intrusions, such as the colonists had frequently experienced under British rule, and which had come to represent governmental oppression. Like many parts of the Constitution, this amendment could be interpreted in many different ways. Until the twentieth century, the Fourth Amendment was of no help to criminal defendants because evidence seized during an unreasonable search was still admissible in court. Not until Weeks v. United States (1914) was evidence seized in an unreasonable search deemed inadmissible. Thus was created the exclusionary rule, which states that evidence obtained in violation of a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights cannot be used in a criminal prosecution.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988California v. Greenwood - Significance, A Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy, Should The Fourth Amendment Protect Garbage?, Impact