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Trash Can Visible Near the Garage Still Fair Game

United States v. Thompson, 881 F.3d 629 (8th Cir. 2018)

Police received an anonymous tip that James Thompson was dealing illegal drugs. After a drive-by, officers contacted the local trash service and arranged for a trash pull. Officers watched the garbage collector walk up the driveway to Thompson's garage, take the trash can and dump the trash into the garbage truck. Officers then took the trash and searched it, finding several drug-related items.

Officers conducted another trash pull the following week and found more drug-related items and a receipt for a storage unit. Based on the trash pulls and the informant's tip, the officers obtained a search warrant for Thompson's residence. They found 19 grams of methamphetamine, $26,063 in cash, and drug paraphernalia. The officers later obtained another search warrant for Thompson's storage unit, where they found an additional 115.1 grams of methamphetamine and $36,950 in cash.

Thompson asked the court to suppress the evidence, claiming that the trash pulls were unconstitutional. He asserted that he hadn't abandoned his expectation of privacy in the trash container sitting by his garage. The garbage was still within the curtilage of his residence when the trash collector walked up and took it (curtilage is the area immediately surrounding a home). Items within the curtilage get the same Fourth Amendment protection as the residence itself.

The court rejected Thompson's argument. Citing its own precedent, the court stated that "the proper focus [is] whether the garbage was readily accessible to the public so as to render any expectation of privacy objectively unreasonable." Thompson's garbage can "was easily visible from the street, and there were no barriers preventing access to the container or its contents." Thus, he couldn't assert a legitimate expectation of privacy in the trash can contents.