When can the police search your trash for evidence of a crime?

When detectives are trying to build a case against someone who is suspected of white-collar crimes, they start looking for any kind of evidence they can find. Since it’s hard to commit any kind of financial crime without leaving a paper trail, a suspect’s trash is usually of significant interest to the authorities.

Do the police have the right to search your trash? Yes — and no. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:

  1. Without a warrant (or your permission), they can’t search the trash in your home or car. They also can’t look at the trash in the pockets of your jacket, in the bottom of your backpack or in your bag. That would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
  2. They cannot search the trash bins or bags in your garage or around your home. As long as the bags or bins are on the curtilage of your property (the area immediately surrounding your home), the police still need a warrant to access it.
  3. You have no expectation of privacy when your trash is out for pickup. Once you’ve put your bins or bags on the curb for collection, the police can legally swoop it up and go through it. They can spend all the time they want searching through it, piecing together scraps of paper that have gone through a shredder and so on — and they will.

It’s important to remember that the police often make mistakes when it comes to the collection of evidence. That’s why it’s smart to discuss all of the details of your situation with your defense attorney as soon as you can. Evidence that’s obtained illegally can sometimes be suppressed in court.