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Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988).

This case answers a couple of questions:

  1. Is it unconstitutional for the police to search through a suspect’s trash if left by the curb?
  2. Does the Court have to suppress evidence that is illegally seized by law enforcement?

The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit warrantless search and seizure of garbage bags left on the side of a public street. The California Constitutional amendment that eliminates the exclusionary rule for evidence seized in violation of state law is not a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The first issue in this case is whether the Fourth Amendment protects against the warrantless search and seizure of garbage bags placed on the side of a public street. The Court ruled that the search and seizure of garbage bags left at the curb outside of the residence would only violate the Fourth Amendment if the respondents manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in their garbage that society accepts as objectively reasonable. Id. at 39. The Court stated that by placing their trash on or, near the street, they had exposed their garbage to the public sufficiently to defeat their claim to Fourth Amendment protection because it is common knowledge that they are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public. Id. at 40. The Court noted that 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. Id. at 41. In addition, the Court concluded that due to the public availability of trash being left for pick up on the side of the road, that society as a whole possess no such understanding that garbage left for collection maintains that protection. Id. at 43.

Further, the Court ruled that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy of information if he voluntarily turns over that information to third parties. Id. at 41. In this case, the respondents intended to convey their trash to the trash collector, the third party, who could have sorted through the garbage bag himself or permitted others, including police officers, to do so. The Court concluded that since the respondents placed their garbage in an area that was open for public inspection and for the express purpose of having strangers take the property, they could have no reasonable expectation of privacy and, therefore, the search and seizure of the garbage bags was not a violation of the respondents Fourth Amendment rights.

The second issue in this case is whether California’s Constitutional amendment that allows for the use of evidence illegally obtained under state law but not federal law is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court ruled that California could amend its Constitution to negate the holding of a previous California Supreme Court ruling that state law forbids warrantless searches of trash or they could remove the subsequent state constitutional amendment that created the exclusionary rule as a remedy for violations of that right. Id. at 44. The Court states that even at the federal level, it is not required that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment be suppressed in all circumstances. Id. On the federal level, the court has declined to apply the exclusionary rule indiscriminately when law enforcement officers “have acted in objective good faith of 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 45. The Court, therefore, dismissed this argument and concluded that the states are not in violation of the Due Process Clause by using a similar balancing approach when deciding when to apply their own exclusionary rules.

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