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California v. Greenwood


The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and many police departments regularly search trash. The decision in California v. Greenwood was welcomed by law enforcement agencies and led to even more detectives looking for evidence in this manner.

Civil libertarians objected to the decision. Arthur Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union stated in a Time magazine interview, California v. Greenwood "is one more step in squeezing the right to privacy to the point where Americans will no longer feel secure against the prying eye of Big Brother."

The decision did not surprise many legal scholars, since the Supreme Court had been taking a narrow view of the right to privacy. People have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding banking records, vehicle location, handwriting, and land visible from public places. Law enforcement officers may inspect these things without a warrant.

In the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court's decision in California v. Greenwood was still being used as the basis for opinions regarding the warrantless searching of trash. The Supreme Court of North Carolina, in State v. Hauser (1976) held that a search of a defendant's garbage did not violate the Fourth Amendment, even though the garbage was taken from the backyard. Because it was removed during the normal course of trash collection, the defendant lost his expectation of privacy because he knew that the trash collector would take it, and could possibly look through it or give it to someone else. To maintain his privacy interest in his trash, the defendant needed to deliver the trash to the dump personally or burn it.

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