California v. Greenwood

486 U.S. 35

Case Year: 1988

Case Ruling: 6-2, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: White

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, O?Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, Stevens


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Brennen

Joiner(s): Marshall

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


In early 1984, Laguna Beach police received an informant’s tip that Billy Greenwood was engaged in drug trafficking and that a truck with a large cargo of illegal drugs was en route to Greenwood’s house. In addition, a neighbor complained to police of heavy vehicular traffic late at night in front of Greenwood’s house. In response, the police placed the house under surveillance. They observed several vehicles late at night making brief stops at the residence. They followed one truck from Greenwood’s house to a residence that had previously been suspected of being a place where illegal drug activity occurred.

Local law required that residential trash be picked up by an approved trash collection service. Police took advantage of this law by asking the neighborhood’s regular trash collector to pick up the plastic bags that Greenwood left on the curb in front of his house and to turn the bags over to police without first mixing the bags with those collected from other houses. The trash collector agreed to cooperate. Police searched the garbage bags and found evidence of narcotics use.

Based on all of this information, police obtained a warrant to search Greenwood’s house. Upon executing the warrant they found cocaine and hashish. Greenwood was arrested, but was released on bail.

Police continued to receive reports of suspicious activity at Greenwood’s home. They repeated the trash collection procedure and found more evidence of illegal drugs. They obtained a second warrant and conducted another search of Greenwood’s home that yielded additional evidence of illegal activity. Greenwood was arrested again.

California courts held that the warrantless search of Greenwood’s trash violated his search and seizure rights. The state of California requested Supreme Court review.



The issue here is whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home. We conclude, in accordance with the vast majority of lower courts that have addressed the issue, that it does not. . . .

The warrantless search and seizure of the garbage bags left at the curb outside the Greenwood house would violate the Fourth Amendment only if respondents manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in their garbage that society accepts as objectively reasonable. Respondents do not disagree with this standard.

They assert, however, that they had, and exhibited, an expectation of privacy with respect to the trash that was searched by the police: the trash, which was placed on the street for collection at a fixed time, was contained in opaque plastic bags, which the garbage collector was expected to pick up, mingle with the trash of others, and deposit at the garbage dump. The trash was only temporarily on the street, and there was little likelihood that it would be inspected by anyone.

It may well be that respondents did not expect that the contents of their garbage bags would become known to the police or other members of the public. An expectation of privacy does not give rise to Fourth Amendment protection, however, unless society is prepared to accept that expectation as objectively reasonable.

Here, we conclude that respondents exposed their garbage to the public sufficiently to defeat their claim to Fourth Amendment protection. It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public. Moreover, respondents placed their refuse at the curb for the express purpose of conveying it to a third party, the trash collector, who might himself have sorted through respondents' trash or permitted others, such as the police, to do so. Accordingly, having deposited their garbage in an area particularly suited for public inspection and, in a manner of speaking, public consumption, for the express purpose of having strangers take it, respondents could have had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the inculpatory items that they discarded.

Furthermore, as we have held, the police cannot reasonably be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public. Hence, "[w]hat a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection." Katz v. United States (1967). We held in Smith v. Maryland (1979), for example, that the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by causing a pen register to be installed at the telephone company's offices to record the telephone numbers dialed by a criminal suspect. An individual has no legitimate expectation of privacy in the numbers dialed on his telephone, we reasoned, because he voluntarily conveys those numbers to the telephone company when he uses the telephone. Again, we observed that "a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties."

Similarly, we held in California v. Ciraolo (1986) that the police were not required by the Fourth Amendment to obtain a warrant before conducting surveillance of the respondent's fenced backyard from a private plane flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet. We concluded that the respondent's expectation that his yard was protected from such surveillance was unreasonable, because "[a]ny member of the public flying in this airspace who glanced down could have seen everything that these officers observed."

Our conclusion that society would not accept as reasonable respondents' claim to an expectation of privacy in trash left for collection in an area accessible to the public is reinforced by the unanimous rejection of similar claims by the Federal Courts of Appeals. . . . “[T]he overwhelming weight of authority rejects the proposition that a reasonable expectation of privacy exists with respect to trash discarded outside the home and the curtilege [sic] thereof.”

In addition, of those state appellate courts that have considered the issue, the vast majority have held that the police may conduct warrantless searches and seizures of garbage discarded in public areas.

We reject respondent Greenwood's alternative argument for affirmance: that his expectation of privacy in his garbage should be deemed reasonable as a matter of federal constitutional law because the warrantless search and seizure of his garbage was impermissible as a matter of California law. . . .

Individual States may surely construe their own constitutions as imposing more stringent constraints on police conduct than does the Federal Constitution. We have never intimated, however, that whether or not a search is reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment depends on the law of the particular State in which the search occurs. We have emphasized instead that the Fourth Amendment analysis must turn on such factors as "our societal understanding that certain areas deserve the most scrupulous protection from government invasion." Oliver v. United States (1984). We have already concluded that society as a whole possesses no such understanding with regard to garbage left for collection at the side of a public street. Respondent's argument is no less than a suggestion that concepts of privacy under the laws of each State are to determine the reach of the Fourth Amendment. We do not accept this submission. . . .

The judgment of the California Court of Appeal is therefore reversed, and this case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. It is so ordered.


Every week for two months, and at least once more a month later, the Laguna Beach police clawed through the trash that respondent Greenwood left in opaque, sealed bags on the curb outside his home. Complete strangers minutely scrutinized their bounty, undoubtedly dredging up intimate details of Greenwood's private life and habits. The intrusions proceeded without a warrant, and no court before or since has concluded that the police acted on probable cause to believe Greenwood was engaged in any criminal activity.

Scrutiny of another's trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior. I suspect, therefore, that members of our society will be shocked to learn that the Court, the ultimate guarantor of liberty, deems unreasonable our expectation that the aspects of our private lives that are concealed safely in a trash bag will not become public.

“A container which can support a reasonable expectation of privacy may not be searched, even on probable cause, without a warrant.” United States v. Jacobsen (1984). Thus, as the Court observes, if Greenwood had a reasonable expectation that the contents of the bags that he placed on the curb would remain private, the warrantless search of those bags violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Framers of the Fourth Amendment understood that "unreasonable searches" of "paper[s] and effects" -- no less than "unreasonable searches" of "person[s] and houses" -- infringe privacy. As early as 1878, this Court acknowledged that the contents of “[l]etters and sealed packages . . . in the mail are as fully guarded from examination and inspection . . . as if they were retained by the parties forwarding them in their own domiciles.” Ex parte Jackson (1878). In short, so long as a package is "closed against inspection," the Fourth Amendment protects its contents, "wherever they may be," and the police must obtain a warrant to search it just "as is required when papers are subjected to search in one's own household."Ibid.

With the emergence of the reasonable-expectation-o-privacy analysis, see Katz v. United States (1967), we have reaffirmed this fundamental principle. In Robbins v. California (1981), for example, Justice Stewart, writing for a plurality of four, pronounced that, “unless the container is such that its contents may be said to be in plain view, those contents are fully protected by the Fourth Amendment and soundly rejected any distinction for Fourth Amendment purposes among various opaque, sealed containers. . . .

Our precedent, therefore, leaves no room to doubt that, had respondents been carrying their personal effects in opaque, sealed plastic bags -- identical to the ones they placed on the curb -- their privacy would have been protected from warrantless police intrusion. . . . Respondents deserve no less protection just because Greenwood used the bags to discard, rather than to transport, his personal effects. Their contents are not inherently any less private, and Greenwood's decision to discard them, at least in the manner in which he did, does not diminish his expectation of privacy.

A trash bag, like any of the above-mentioned containers, "is a common repository for one's personal effects" and, even more than many of them, is "therefore . . . inevitably associated with the expectation of privacy." . . . A single bag of trash testifies eloquently to the eating, reading, and recreational habits of the person who produced it. A search of trash, like a search of the bedroom, can relate intimate details about sexual practices, health, and personal hygiene. Like rifling through desk drawers or intercepting phone calls, rummaging through trash can divulge the target's financial and professional status, political affiliations and inclinations, private thoughts, personal relationships, and romantic interests. It cannot be doubted that a sealed trash bag harbors telling evidence of the "intimate activity associated with the ‘sanctity of a man's home and the privacies of life,'" which the Fourth Amendment is designed to protect. . . .

I dissent.