The United States Supreme Court has endorsed the right of police to rummage through trash to gather evidence of possible crimes. By a 6-to-2 vote, the justices yesterday reinstated drug-dealing charges against two Californians whose garbage was found to contain evidence of narcotics.
The whimsical aspects of this case have often been emphasized. But constitutional experts say the ruling has important implications for Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure law. It also could be used as a basis for upcoming decisions regarding drug testing in the work place and electronic eavesdropping.
The decision overturned several lower court rulings invalidating warrantless trash searches. A California Superior Court suppressed the evidence police found in the garbage on Fourth Amendment grounds. And the state Court of Appeal dismissed the case against the two defendants.
When the California Supreme Court subsequently refused further review, law enforcement and police authorities took the matter to the US Supreme Court.
Writing for the high court's majority, Associate Justice Byron White said: ``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.''
Justice White explained: ``It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.''
Courts have generally read the US Constitution as requiring police to obtain judicial search warrants before conducting searches in a criminal investigation.
Lawyers for the accused in the California case had argued that their clients were entitled to a ``reasonable expectation'' of privacy and that was violated by a warrantless search of their garbage.
White wrote, however, that this ``expectation of privacy'' does not apply to discarded trash. He was joined in this majority opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and John Paul Stevens.
Strong dissent came from Associate Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy did not vote.
Justice Brennan wrote that ``scrutiny of another's trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior. ``I suspect, therefore, that members of our society will be shocked to learn that the court, the ultimate guarantor of liberty, deems unreasonable our expectation that the aspects of our private lives that are concealed safely in a trash bag will not become public.''
This case is State of California v. Billy Greenwood.
In other action on Monday, the Supreme Court:
Upheld, 6 to 1, a $1.8 million judgment against an insurance company ordered to pay the money to a Mississippi man whose $20,000 claim it wrongfully rejected. The justices, however, did not decide the constitutionality of such large punitive-damage awards in personal injury cases.
Agreed to hear a New Jersey case to determine whether that state is unfairly forcing 13 major oil companies to pay millions of dollars in taxes. New Jersey now denies state tax deductions for what the oil firms pay in federal windfall profits taxes.