Iowa's Top Court Says Cops Can't Search People's Garbage Without A Warrant
from the [starts-selling-COME-BACK-WITH-WARRANT-trash-bags] dept
Pretty much everywhere in the United States it’s accepted that if the public has access, law enforcement has access. This is the legal theory behind things like automatic license plate readers (anyone can see a license plate), utility pole-mounted cameras (anyone can see someone’s front yard), and (to our benefit) recordings of public officials (if they’re performing their public duties).
This theory (along with the theory of abandonment) tends to govern people’s trash. Once it is outside the house and made accessible to sanitation services, it can be accessed by anyone, including law enforcement officers. Sifting through trash that has been “abandoned” is one of several ways officers compile the probable cause for search warrants.
Trash can’t tell you everything but it can give you some idea what’s going on inside a house. Conclusions are drawn from what’s been observed in trash cans and officers move in. Sometimes they’re horribly, horribly wrong. Sometimes they draw the correct inferences and make a successful bust. In either case, warrantless access to people’s trash has been considered lawful for years.
The state’s top court breaks away from years of accepted jurisprudence to extend constitutional protections to residents’ trash. But only the state’s Constitution. The Fourth Amendment still doesn’t cover trash pulls.
In this case, officers performed a couple of warrantless trash pulls, finding evidence of alleged drug production or use (poppy seeds, empty poppy seed packets, fabric pieces that tested positive for morphine). Using this as a basis for a search warrant, officers searched the house and found something else.
The police executed the warrant at Wright’s residence on November 21. They discovered a baggie containing two grams of marijuana and several capsules of Vyvanse, a prescription drug for which Wright had no prescription.
So, not the drugs the officers thought they would find, but drugs nonetheless. Nicholas Wright challenged the warrantless search of his trash, claiming this violated his rights.
Wright made two arguments in support of his motion. First, he argued Heinz physically trespassed on his property. Second, he argued he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents contained in his trash bags. Wright argued the search warrant ultimately issued was without probable cause if the evidence obtained from the warrantless seizures and searches of his trash bags were suppressed.
The district court disagreed with Wright’s assertions. So did the state appeals court. The state’s top court, however, sees things differently. It takes its time getting to the point, but does perform the invaluable service of running down both state and federal interpretations of the Fourth Amendment and the state’s own Article I Section 8, its Fourth Amendment equivalent. The court reaches this conclusion:
Current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is a mess.
Instead of saying things are too screwed up to weigh in on a case like this — one already rejected by two other courts — the Iowa Supreme Court decides to set some precedent. It says taking trash is both a search and a seizure under the state Constitution.
Heinz meaningfully interfered with and “seized” the garbage bags and papers and effects contained therein when he removed the garbage bags from Wright’s trash bins, took possession of them, and transported them to the police station for further inspection.
It is equally apparent Heinz engaged in a search when he opened the garbage bags and rummaged through them.
A search is a search, even when the intrusion is minimal. The court cites the US Supreme Court’s Jones decision, which said the warrantless placement of a tracking device on a vehicle was a trespass.
Here, Heinz testified he opened the garbage to “obtain information about what Mr. Wright may have been doing inside [his] house” and obtain evidence “related to drug activity.” A constitutional search occurs whenever the government commits a physical trespass against property, even where de minimis, conjoined with “an attempt to find something or to obtain information.”
That what was searched was “only” trash doesn’t matter. A search was performed without a warrant specifically to find evidence of criminal activity.
We have little trouble concluding the property at issue is protected within the meaning of article I, section 8. Opaque garbage bags are containers, and containers are an “effect” as originally understood. See United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 822, 102 S. Ct. 2157, 2171 (1982). The fact that the containers happen to be garbage bags rather than, say, expensive luggage, is not of constitutional consequence. There is no “constitutional distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ containers.” . […] In addition, Heinz opened the garbage bags and searched through the contents. The contents included other personal property, including two pieces of mail addressed to Wright. Letters are certainly papers. Further, “[l]etters . . . are in the general class of effects,” and “warrantless searches of such effects are presumptively unreasonable.” Jacobsen, 466 U.S. at 114, 104 S. Ct. at 1657.
The court also says there was no “abandonment” of the trash, contrary to the state’s arguments. State law says only licensed trash collectors can haul away trash. The leaving of trash outside the house is done with the assumption that only an “authorized collector” — entities governed by their own set of state and city laws — will move or otherwise access trash bags and their contents. Even when it’s left outside to be collected, residents still maintain control of these possessions until an authorized collector takes possession. Cops aren’t authorized collectors.
In moving his trash to the alley for collection, Wright agreed only to convey his property to a licensed collector. Wright would have the right to retrieve the property prior to collection and the right to exclude all others from rummaging through his garbage bins prior to collection.
The court also says there’s a limited expectation of privacy in the contents of garbage bags. While this privacy evaporates once the bags are collected and processed by sanitation companies, it existed at the point the officer took the bags and searched the contents.
This is the precedent set in Iowa by this decision:
We hold Officer Heinz conducted an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution when he acted without a search warrant and removed opaque trash bags from waste bins set out for collection behind a residence, took possession of the trash bags, transported them to a different location, opened the bags, and searched through the contents.
The case goes back to the lower court. The evidence will be suppressed but Wright’s conviction still stands for now. It will be up to the state to prove its case without the evidence found in the trash bags, which then formed the basis for the search that resulted in Wright’s arrest. That’s not going to be easy.
This essentially makes trash pulls illegal. At the very least, it forbids cops from opening bags to take a look at their contents. Residents using clear trash bags won’t necessarily be covered by this decision, since anything observable by other citizens can also be seen by officers.
This may result in law enforcement working more closely with sanitation companies to find some way to mark garbage officers would like to search and create a chain of custody that allows this evidence to be used to obtain search warrants or present in court. Once the bag hits the dump or processing center, it’s open season.