California v. Greenwood Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The respondent, Greenwood (the “respondent”), was arrested for narcotics trafficking based upon evidence obtained as a result of a police search of his trash. The California Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of charges on the ground that the California Constitution declared such searches as unconstitutional. The State petitioned for review.

Facts of the case

Local police suspected Billy Greenwood was dealing drugs from his residence. Because the police did not have enough evidence for a warrant to search his home, they searched the garbage bags Greenwood had left at the curb for pickup. The police uncovered evidence of drug use, which was then used to obtain a warrant to search the house. That search turned up illegal substances, and Greenwood was arrested on felony charges.

Question

Whether a person has a subjective expectation of privacy in their garbage that society accepts as objectively reasonable?

Answer

Justice Byron White (J. White) held that no such subjective expectation of privacy existed. An expectation of privacy does not give rise to Fourth Amendment constitutional protection unless society is prepared to accept that expectation as objectively reasonable. The respondent exposed his garbage to the public to sufficiently defeat the claim to Fourth Amendment constitutional protection. Garbage left at the side of the road is readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public. Moreover, the garbage was placed at the curb for the purpose of conveying it to a third party. Therefore, the respondent could have had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the items discarded. What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment constitutional protection.

Conclusion

The court held that the Fourth Amendment did not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home because there was no subjective expectation of privacy in the garbage that society accepted as objectively reasonable. The garbage was sufficiently exposed and did not have Fourth Amendment protection because it was deposited in an area particularly suited for public inspection for the express purpose of having strangers take it. The court concluded that the police could not reasonably be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public.

  • Case Brief: 1988
  • Petitioner: California
  • Respondent: Greenwood
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 486 US 35 (1988)
Argued: Jan 11, 1988
Decided: May 16, 1988