Questions: (1) Does a peace officer need to get a warrant to search a suspect’s garbage left in an alley for collection? (2) Can an officer establish probable cause for a warrant from complaints about drug activity and the contents found during a trash-pull? (3) Is a “search all persons on the premises” clause in a warrant invalid?
Quick answers: (1) No, garbage that is voluntarily left in a public area for collection is not protected under U.S. or Ohio search and seizure laws. (2) Yes, probable cause could be based independently on the contents found during a trash-pull, but it could not be based solely on uncorroborated complaints about drug activity. (3) It depends. If there is probable cause to support a search of every person on the premises, then the clause isn’t invalid.
Facts: Police officers received complaints that a neighbor was allowing others to store large amounts of drugs in his home. From these complaints, officers conducted a trash-pull, where they inspected three garbage bags that had been placed in an alley by someone in the house. Inside the bags, officers found loose marijuana, torn baggies, marijuana cigarettes, saran-wrapped packages with cocaine and crack cocaine residue on them, and several documents that were addressed to the homeowner. Based on the complaints and the trash-pull evidence, police obtained a search warrant for the home. They executed the warrant at night, and during that time, defendant Chauncy Quinn walked up to the house to go inside. When he saw police, he turned and ran. An officer caught him in the front yard of the home and searched him, finding a key to the house as well as marijuana and crack cocaine. Quinn moved to suppress all the evidence based on an unconstitutional search warrant that lacked probable cause.
Why this case is important: The court first found that the warrantless trash-pull was constitutional. In Ohio, there is no protected privacy interest in garbage that is placed outside for collection because a person is knowingly exposing the garbage to the public. Once placed outside to be collected, garbage is accessible for anyone to examine, including law enforcement’s opportunity to search for evidence of criminal activity. Second, the court found that the complaints of drug activity were not, on their own, sufficient to establish probable cause, as there was no way to know if the complaints were credible. However, the officers’ trash-pull independently provided them with probable cause for a warrant because the officers found drugs and mail linking the homeowner to the residence.
Finally, the court explained that a warrant’s “search all persons on the premises” clause isn’t invalid if, based on the facts and circumstances, probable cause exists to believe that evidence found in the home also would be found on persons in and around the home. Here, Quinn was about to enter the house when he saw police and ran. He was found with a key to the home’s front door, too, showing he had open access to the residence. Plus, police were executing the search warrant at night for evidence of drugs and drug transactions, which typically involves multiple individuals who often are armed and dangerous. From these facts and circumstances, the court found that searching Quinn was justified under the “all persons” clause of the warrant.
Keep in mind: Garbage placed outside for collection is accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public. In Ohio, you can collect it and search through it without a warrant. And the evidence you find from the trash-pull alone could give you probable cause to get a warrant for searching the home. But the U.S. Supreme Court makes a key distinction in California v. Greenwood that you can’t collect a suspect’s garbage until they’ve set it out for collection. This means, for example, that any trash sitting in the curtilage of a person’s home that’s not yet taken to the curb for collection cannot be searched without a warrant.This distinction is important depending on the jurisdiction where you work (urban vs. rural). Setting garbage outside a person’s home (in an alley, for instance) may be considered “ready for collection” in a city, but the same may not be true in a rural setting, where garbage placed just outside the home is still considered within the home’s curtilage.
Further, depending on the facts of your case, you may be able to include a “search all persons on the premises” clause in the warrant, particularly if you are dealing with a potential drug house.
to read the entire opinion