Question: Can the police look through your trash for evidence that you have committed a crime?
Answer: Yes, if they have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.
In 2011, a detective interviewed arrestees in connection with a cocaine dealing investigation. They identified the defendant as their dealer and told the detective where he lived. Thereafter, another detective received an anonymous phone tip, and the caller reported that she observed the defendant with a large amount of cash at his residence and a hidden compartment for the money in the floor of the back bedroom. The anonymous tipster also stated that she observed a large amount of cocaine. The next day, the detectives drove by the residence to perform surveillance. The defendant had placed his trash outside near his detached garage to be collected by a garbage service, and other residents in the neighborhood had done the same. One detective quickly collected two bags of his trash, which the detectives looked through after they returned to their office. In the trash, they found crack pipes, three empty boxes of baking soda which is useful in processing cocaine into crack cocaine, and several plastic baggies containing a white powdery substance that tested positive for cocaine. A warrant to search the residence was obtained and during execution of the warrant, law enforcement officers discovered significant amounts of cocaine, marijuana, scales, plastic baggies, large amounts of cash, paraphernalia and a firearm. The defendant was charged with several felonies to which he filed a motion to suppress all evidence seized during the execution of the search warrant arguing that the affidavit accompanying the warrant failed to state sufficient facts to establish probable cause and that the trash search was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The motion was denied and an appeal was filed.
On appeal, the court reviewed, “whether the actions of the government were “reasonable” under the “totality of the circumstances”? The Indiana Supreme Court has held that a search of trash recovered from the place where it is left for collection is permissible under the Indiana Constitution, but only if the investigating officials have an articulable basis justifying reasonable suspicion that the subjects of the search have engaged in violations of law that might reasonably lead to evidence in the trash. The court set out a two-part test for determining whether a trash search is reasonable. First, the “trash must be retrieved in substantially the same manner as the trash collector would take it.” Second, the search must be based on an “articulable individualized suspicion that illegal activity is or has been taking place, essentially the same as is required for a ‘Terry stop’ of an automobile.” The defendant did not contest the manner in which his trash was seized, but argues solely that the detectives lacked reasonable suspicion to search his trash. Reasonable suspicion exists if the facts known to the officer and the reasonable inferences therefrom would cause an ordinarily prudent person to believe that criminal activity has or is about to occur. Although reasonable suspicion requires more than inchoate and unparticularized hunches, it is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires considerably less proof than that required to establish wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence. A determination of reasonable suspicion is made on a case-by-case basis by looking at the totality of the circumstances. Here, the information relayed to the detectives by 3 informants was enough for the detectives to reasonably suspect criminal activity. Given the totality of these circumstances, the trash search in this case was constitutionally permissible. 984 N.E.2d 709.