California v. Greenwood/Opinion of the Court

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California v. Greenwood
Opinion of the Court by Byron White
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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

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.


In early 1984, Investigator Jenny Stracner of the Laguna Beach Police Department received information indicating that respondent Greenwood might be engaged in narcotics trafficking. Stracner learned that a criminal suspect had informed a federal drug enforcement agent in February, 1984, that a truck filled with illegal drugs was en route to the Laguna Beach address at which Greenwood resided. In addition, a neighbor complained of heavy vehicular traffic late at night in front of Greenwood's single-family home. The neighbor reported that the vehicles remained at Greenwood's house for only a few minutes.

Stracner sought to investigate this information by conducting a surveillance of Greenwood's home. She observed several vehicles make brief stops at the house during the late-night and early-morning hours, and she followed a truck from the house to a residence that had previously been under investigation as a narcotics trafficking location.

On April 6, 1984, Stracner asked the neighborhood's regular trash collector to pick up the plastic garbage bags that Greenwood had left on the curb in front of his house and to turn the bags over to her without mixing their contents with garbage from other houses. The trash collector cleaned his truck bin of other refuse, collected the garbage bags from the street in front of Greenwood's house, and turned the bags over to Stracner. The officer searched through the rubbish [p38] and found items indicative of narcotics use. She recited the information that she had gleaned from the trash search in an affidavit in support of a warrant to search Greenwood's home.

Police officers encountered both respondents at the house later that day when they arrived to execute the warrant. The police discovered quantities of cocaine and hashish during their search of the house. Respondents were arrested on felony narcotics charges. They subsequently posted bail.

The police continued to receive reports of many late-night visitors to the Greenwood house. On May 4, Investigator Robert Rahaeuser obtained Greenwood's garbage from the regular trash collector in the same manner as had Stracner. The garbage again contained evidence of narcotics use.

Rahaeuser secured another search warrant for Greenwood's home based on the information from the second trash search. The police found more narcotics and evidence of narcotics trafficking when they executed the warrant. Greenwood was again arrested.

The Superior Court dismissed the charges against respondents on the authority of People v. Krivda, 5 Cal.3d 357, 486 P.2d 1262 (1971), which held that warrantless trash searches violate the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution. The court found that the police would not have had probable cause to search the Greenwood home without the evidence obtained from the trash searches.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. 182 Cal.App.3d 729, 227 Cal.Rptr. 539 (1986). The court noted at the outset that the fruits of warrantless trash searches could no longer be suppressed if Krivda were based only on the California Constitution, because, since 1982, the State has barred the suppression of evidence seized in violation of California law but not federal law. See Cal.Const., Art. I, § 28(d); In re Lance W., 37 Cal.3d 873, 694 P.2d 744 (1985). But Krivda, a decision binding on the Court of Appeal, also held that the fruits of warrantless trash searches were to be excluded under federal [p39] law. Hence, the Superior Court was correct in dismissing the charges against respondents. 182 Cal.App.3d at 735, 227 Cal.Rptr, at 542. [1]

The California Supreme Court denied the State's petition for review of the Court of Appeal's decision. We granted certiorari, 483 U.S. 1019, and now reverse.


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. O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709, 715 (1987); California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207, 211 (1986); Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 177 (1984); Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967) (Harlan, J., concurring). 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, [p40] 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, [2] children, scavengers, [3] snoops, [4] and other members of the public. See Krivda, 5 Cal.3d at 367, 486 P.2d at 1269. 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 [p41] public inspection and, in a manner of speaking, public consumption, for the express purpose of having strangers take it,

United States v. Reicherter, 647 F.2d 397, 399 (CA3 1981), 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, supra, at 351. We held in Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (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." Id. at 743-744.

Similarly, we held in California v. Ciraolo, supra, 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." Id. at 213-214.

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. See United States v. Dela Espriella, [p42] 781 F.2d 1432, 1437 (CA9 1986); United States v. O'Bryant, 775 F.2d 1528, 1533-1534 (CA11 1985); United States v. Michaels, 726 F.2d 1307, 1312-1313 (CA8), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 820 (1984); United States v. Kramer, 711 F.2d 789, 791-794 (CA7), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 962 (1983); United States v. Terry, 702 F.2d 299, 308-309 (CA2), cert. denied sub nom. Williams v. United States, 461 U.S. 931 (1983); United States v. Reicherter, supra, at 399; United States v. Vahalik, 606 F.2d 99, 100-101 (CA5 1979) (per curiam), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1081 (1980); United States v. Crowell, 586 F.2d 1020, 1025 (CA4 1978), cert. denied, 440 U.S. 959 (1979); Magda v. Benson, 536 F.2d 111, 112-113 (CA6 1976) (per curiam); United States v. Mustone, 469 F.2d 970, 972-974 (CA1 1972). In United States v. Thornton, 241 U.S.App.D.C. 46, 56, and n. 11, 746 F.2d 39, 49, and n. 11 (1984), the court observed that

the 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. See Commonwealth v. Chappee, 397 Mass. 508, 512-513, 492 N.E.2d 719, 721-722 (1986); Cooks v. State, 699 P.2d 653, 656 (Okla. Crim.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 935 (1985); State v. Stevens, 123 Wis.2d 303, 314-317, 367 N.W.2d 788, 794-797, cert. denied, 474 U.S. 852 (1985); State v. Ronngren, 361 N.W.2d 224, 228-230 (N.D.1985); State v. Brown, 20 Ohio App.3d 36, 37-38, 484 N.E.2d 215, 217-218 (1984); State v. Oquist, 327 N.W.2d 587 (Minn.1982); People v. Whotte, 113 Mich.App. 12, 317 N.W.2d 266 (1982); Commonwealth v. Minton, 288 Pa.Super. 381, 391, 432 A.2d 212, 217 (1981); State v. Schultz, 388 So.2d 1326 (Fla.App.1980); People v. Huddleston, 38 Ill.App.3d 277, 347 N.E.2d 76 (1976); Willis v. State, 518 S.W.2d 247, 249 (Tex.Crim.App.1975); Smith v. State, 510 P.2d 793 (Alaska), cert. denied, [p43] 414 U.S. 1086 (1973); State v. Fassler, 108 Ariz. 586, 592-593, 503 P.2d 807, 813-814 (1972); Croker v. State, 477 P.2d 122, 125-126 (Wyo.1970); State v. Purvis, 249 Ore. 404, 411, 438 P.2d 1002, 1005 (1968). But see State v. Tanaka, 67 Haw. 658, 701 P.2d 1274 (1985); People v. Krivda, 5 Cal.3d 729, 486 P.2d 1262 (1971). [5]


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. He urges that the state law right of Californians to privacy in their garbage, announced by the California Supreme Court in Krivda, supra, survived the subsequent state constitutional amendment eliminating the suppression remedy as a means of enforcing that right. See In re Lance W., 37 Cal.3d at 886-887, 694 P.2d at 752-753. Hence, he argues that the Fourth Amendment should itself vindicate that right.

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, 466 U.S. at 178 (emphasis added). See also Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 143-144, n. 12 (1978). We have already concluded that society as a whole possesses no such understanding [p44] 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.


Greenwood finally urges as an additional ground for affirmance that the California constitutional amendment eliminating the exclusionary rule for evidence seized in violation of state but not federal law violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In his view, having recognized a state law right to be free from warrantless searches of garbage, California may not under the Due Process Clause deprive its citizens of what he describes as "the only effective deterrent" to violations of this right. Greenwood concedes that no direct support for his position can be found in the decisions of this Court. He relies instead on cases holding that individuals are entitled to certain procedural protections before they can be deprived of a liberty or property interest created by state law. See Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460 (1983); Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980).

We see no merit in Greenwood's position. California could amend its Constitution to negate the holding in Krivda that state law forbids warrantless searches of trash. We are convinced that the State may likewise eliminate the exclusionary rule as a remedy for violations of that right. At the federal level, we have not required that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment be suppressed in all circumstances. See, e.g., United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984); United States v. Janis, 428 U.S. 433 (1976); United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338 (1974). Rather, our decisions concerning the scope of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule have balanced the benefits of deterring police misconduct against the costs of excluding reliable evidence of criminal activity. See Leon, 468 U.S. at 908-913. We [p45] have declined to apply the exclusionary rule indiscriminately "when law enforcement officers have acted in objective good faith or their transgressions have been minor," because

the magnitude of the benefit conferred on . . . guilty defendants [in such circumstances] offends basic concepts of the criminal justice system.

Id. at 908 (citing Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465, 490 (1976)).

The States are not foreclosed by the Due Process Clause from using a similar balancing approach to delineate the scope of their own exclusionary rules. Hence, the people of California could permissibly conclude that the benefits of excluding relevant evidence of criminal activity do not outweigh the costs when the police conduct at issue does not violate federal law.


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.

JUSTICE KENNEDY took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


  1. . The Court of Appeal also held that respondent Van Houten had standing to seek the suppression of evidence discovered during the April 4 search of Greenwood's home. 182 Cal.App.3d at 735, 227 Cal.Rptr. at 542-543.
  2. . For example, State v. Ronngren, 361 N.W.2d 224 (N. D.1985), involved the search of a garbage bag that a dog, acting "at the behest of no one," id. at 228, had dragged from the defendants' yard into the yard of a neighbor. The neighbor deposited the bag in his own trash can, which he later permitted the police to search. The North Dakota Supreme Court held that the search of the garbage bag did not violate the defendants' Fourth Amendment rights.
  3. . It is not only the homeless of the Nation's cities who make use of others' refuse. For example, a nationally syndicated consumer columnist has suggested that apartment dwellers obtain cents-off coupons by "mak[ing] friends with the fellow who handles the trash" in their buildings, and has recounted the tale of
  4. . Even the refuse of prominent Americans has not been invulnerable. In 1975, for example, a reporter for a weekly tabloid seized five bags of garbage from the sidewalk outside the home of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Washington Post, July 9, 1975, p. A1, col. 8. A newspaper editorial criticizing this journalistic "trash-picking" observed that "[e]vidently . . . ‘everybody does it.'" Washington Post, July 10, 1975, p. A18, col. 1. We of course do not, as the dissent implies, "bas[e] [our] conclusion" that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their garbage on this "sole incident." Post at 51.
  5. . Given that the dissenters are among the tiny minority of judges whose views are contrary to ours, we are distinctly unimpressed with the dissent's prediction that "society will be shocked to learn" of today's decision. Post at 46.