In 1984, the Laguna Beach Police Department learned from unnamed sources that one Billy Greenwood had a little home-based business selling illegal drugs. An investigator asked the neighborhood’s regular trash collector to turn over to police the plastic garbage bags he collected from the front of Greenwood’s house. In the garbage, the investigator found tell-tale signs of drug use. Using that information, police obtained a warrant to search Greenwood’s home. Lo and behold, when officers searched the house, they found cocaine and marijuana along with dirty dishes and other signs of poor housekeeping. Greenwood was promptly arrested.
California courts ruled that searching the trash was a no-no under both federal and state law. The matter found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 16, 1988, the Court reversed lower courts and ruled by a 6–2 vote that no warrant was necessary to search the trash because Greenwood had no reasonable expectation of privacy having put it right out on the curb like that. No matter that he had put the trash in opaque plastic bags whose contents could not be seen without opening and that he expected it to be on the street only a short time before being taken to the dump. The Court said it was “common knowledge” that garbage at the side of the street is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public,” none of whom might have search warrants. Not only that, Greenwood had left the trash there expressly so that the trash collector, a perfect stranger, could take it, and do with it as he pleased.
In dissent, Justice Brennan reasoned that the possibility the police or other “unwelcome meddlers” might rummage through the trash bags “does not negate the expectation of privacy in their contents any more than the possibility of a burglary negates an expectation of privacy in the home.” Under existing law, the bags could not have been searched without a warrant if Greenwood had been carrying them around in public. Merely leaving them on the curb for the garbage man to collect, Brennan argued, should not be found to remove that expectation of privacy any more than leaving an unattended bag in an airport terminal would. “Scrutiny of another’s trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior.”
And one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.