It can take police officers weeks or even months to gather the evidence they need to charge someone with a crime. They often have to go through mountains of paperwork or talk to dozens of people to find incriminating evidence.
One practice often shown on police television shows is the decision of a detective to sort through someone’s trash to find evidence of a criminal act. Is it true that police officers can just go through anything that you throw away to find evidence against you?
When you dispose of something, you release your possession or control over it
While something is in your possession or on your property, the police can’t go through it without your permission or a warrant. For example, if the trash bin is behind your garage, an officer can’t search it without a warrant because it is part of the curtilage of your home. However, when you put a bag in a public waste receptacle or move your own trash bin out to the curb, you lose the presumption of privacy and ownership that you have on your own property.
Setting something out for refuse collection means that you have control over it and that anyone from neighborhood children to the local raccoon population might help themselves to what you put in the bin. The Supreme Court has affirmed that trash publicly disposed of or left out on the curb for collection is vulnerable to searches by police officers. However, police don’t always follow the rules.
If you think that officers violated your rights by entering your property without permission to go through trash you had not moved out to the curb, that could play a role in your criminal defense strategy. Going over the circumstances leading up to your arrest in depth with your attorney may help them challenge evidence or the validity of a search.