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California v. Greenwood

Should The Fourth Amendment Protect Garbage?

Justice Brennan wrote the dissenting opinion, in which Justice Marshall joined. Brennan noted, "Scrutiny of another's trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior . . . Society will be shocked to learn that the Court, the ultimate guarantor of liberty, deems unreasonable our expectation that the aspects of our private lives that are concealed safely in a trash bag will not become public." He held that a container that can support a reasonable expectation of privacy may not be searched without a warrant and that a package closed against inspection is protected by the Fourth Amendment. It should make no difference what type of package it is, as long as its contents are concealed. Brennan also pointed out that it should make no difference that Greenwood used the bags to throw away, rather than to transport, his belongings. Greenwood's decision to throw away the trash does not lessen his expectation of privacy. "A single bag of trash testifies eloquently to the eating, reading and recreational habits of the person who produced it."

Brennan held that, "Most of us, I believe, would be incensed to discover a meddler--whether a neighbor, a reporter, or a detective--scrutinizing our sealed trash containers to discover some detail of our personal lives." However, since occasional intrusions into trash containers do happen, the police cannot be expected to look away from evidence of criminal activity that anyone could have seen. They must simply adhere to norms of privacy that are generally accepted by society. Just because someone may rummage through a person's trash does not mean a person cannot expect privacy. And even though Greenwood was getting rid of the trash, it does not follow that he was giving up his expectation of privacy.

Brennan summed up his dissent by stating:

In holding that the warrantless search of Greenwood's trash was consistent with the Fourth Amendment, the Court paints a grim picture of our society . . . The American society with which I am familiar . . . is more dedicated to individual liberty and more sensitive to intrusions on the sanctity of the home than the Court is willing to acknowledge.

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