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Can the police go through someone’s trash without a warrant?

On Behalf of | Oct 12, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

There are a variety of law enforcement agencies in West Michigan that could investigate an individual. From the Kent County Sheriff’s Department to the Grand Rapids Police Department, local law enforcement authorities are often eager to prove that someone violated the law.

Particularly when there are accusations of some kind of drug offense, the hunt for evidence may require that law enforcement officers use every means at their disposal to build a case. For example, one of the possible ways to connect someone to the West Michigan drug trade would be to assert that they played a role in manufacturing or repackaging drugs for trafficking purposes. Someone’s trash could potentially have a variety of items that officers might find suspicious and that could potentially be used in building their case against a suspect.

Is it possible for law enforcement authorities to search someone’s refuse without a warrant or their permission?

Some warrantless trash searches are legal

Generally speaking, police officers need probable cause, permission from an individual or a warrant signed by a judge to search private property. Still, there are a handful of exceptions to this rule. One of those exceptions involves trash receptacles. A court ruling from decades ago has helped establish that officers can search trash bins once someone pushes them to the curb for collection by a private trash company or municipal trash removal services. However, waste receptacles still in someone’s yard, next to their garage or on their patio are likely not searchable without permission or a warrant.

The deciding factor will be whether or not someone can argue that the trash bin was part of their home’s curtilage. The curtilage is the exterior section of the home that is an extension of the indoor living space. Such areas have protection from warrantless searches, meaning the officers can’t just walk around someone’s garage to go through their trash bin. Waste receptacles left out for collection are potentially fair game for law enforcement.

Oftentimes, the legality of a search may come down to very technical details, including those involving trash-related searches. Ultimately, those facing drug charges in West Michigan or who are subject to an investigation may need to learn more about their rights if they hope to avoid prosecution or successfully defend against their pending charges in criminal court.