Police officers and investigators will often look anywhere they can to try to find evidence. For instance, they may be interested in finding discarded financial statements if someone has been accused of embezzlement. They may look for drug paraphernalia or even illegal substances if someone was (or could be) accused of drug trafficking or production.
One place that the police will sometimes look is in a person’s trash. When are they actually allowed to do this and when does an individual have a right to privacy?
The location of the trash
The key is not in whether or not the police can look in someone’s trash, but where the trash is located at the time of a search.
People have a right to privacy on their own property. If someone has a trash bin behind their home, the police cannot enter their property and look in the bin without first getting consent or a search warrant. Doing so would violate the person’s right to privacy. The same is naturally true for any trash or discarded items that are still within the house, the garage or other structures that the person owns.
However, many people bring their trash out to the street for it to be picked up. Others collect their own trash and take it to the local dump. When either of these actions have been taken, that removes this expectation of privacy and the police can then look in the trash for evidence.
When rights violations occur
The location where the police get their evidence is quite important in determining whether or not that evidence can even be used in court. If the officers violated a person’s rights by illegally entering their property when the person wasn’t home, for example, then the evidence that they found may be excluded from court. This is because of the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, which says that evidence that is illegally gathered can’t be used in court – even if it may have led to a conviction.
That said, a scenario like this can lead to some disputes. The police may claim that they did everything properly, while the person facing arrest may feel that the evidence was illegally gathered. In a contentious court case like this, it’s quite important for those involved to understand their legal defense options by seeking legal guidance as soon as they possibly can.