Date Decided: August 26, 2013
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the police’s search of the defendant’s trashcan did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Around 4:00 a.m. on May 26, 2011, Richmond police officers pulled two garbage bags from a trash can located behind the apartment of Sierra Cox under the suspicion that Defendant Dana Jackson was selling drugs from the apartment. Jackson was Cox’s boyfriend and regularly stayed at the apartment. The layout of the apartment and surrounding areas was particularly important to the district court’s ruling. The court explained that the apartment was a row-type housing unit. Beyond the back door, each unit had a ten by twenty-foot patio that connected to a common sidewalk running the length of the building. Between the patio and a sidewalk ran a narrow strip of grass. Finally, beyond the patio and sidewalk, there was a courtyard that served as a common area. The officers testified that the trashcan was partially on the patio and partially on the strip of grass beyond the patio. They further explained that they recovered two trash bags by stepping onto the grass and pulling the bags out of the trashcan. The officers claimed that they did not have to step onto the patio to recover the trash.
After recovering items in the trash bags consistent with drug trafficking, the police obtained a warrant and searched the home. In the home, the police found ample evidence of drug trafficking including firearms, scales, a large amount of cash, and other drug paraphernalia. At trial, Jackson moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the trash pull. Jackson argued that the search was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unlawful search and seizure on two grounds: first, because the police physically intruded on a constitutionally protected area, and second, because he had a reasonable expectation of privacy to the contents of the trash can. The district court dismissed both arguments and sentenced Jackson to 137 months imprisonment. Jackson appealed the district court’s ruling.
On appeal, Jackson first argued that the district court’s factual finding regarding the location of the trashcan was clearly erroneous. Cox testified that she often kept the trashcan chained and locked on her patio. She claimed that she unlocked the trashcan only to move it to the curb. Nevertheless, she could not say definitively where the trashcan was located on the day in question. In contrast, the officers testified with great precision about the location of the trashcan. The Fourth Circuit held that the discrepancy of the testimony, the differences in specificity, and the district court’s unique ability to evaluate the credibility of witnesses rendered the district court’s decision not clearly erroneous.
Jackson next argued that the officers’ actions involved an unlicensed physical intrusion of a constitutionally protected area so as to constitute an illegal search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Jackson contended that that the trash can was located within the “curtilage” of the home, that is, the “area immediately surrounding and associated with the home…[treated] as part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.” The Fourth Circuit, after conducting a de novo review, disagreed. The court acknowledged that if the trash can fell within the home’s curtilage, the officers were required to obtain permission to gather information under the Fourth Amendment. The parties stipulated that the curtilage of Cox’s apartment included the concrete patio behind her home. Beyond the patio, the parties disagreed as to whether the curtilage extended to the grass strip and the sidewalk behind the apartment. The Fourth Circuit held that the apartment’s curtilage did not extend beyond the patio. The grass strip where the officers conducted the trash pull was at least twenty feet from the apartment’s back door. Furthermore, the trashcan was not included in an enclosure or shielded from public view. Most importantly, everything beyond the strip of grass was a “common area” used by all residents. Thus, the court held that because the officers “did not physically intrude upon a constitutionally protected area” Jackson was not entitled to relief under this “property-based approach” to the Fourth Amendment.
Finally, Jackson argued that the officers’ actions violated his Fourth Amendment by infringing on Jackson’s reasonable expectation of privacy in the trashcan’s contents. The Fourth Circuit found the situation fell under the Supreme Court’s Greenwood decision and disagreed. In Greenwood, the Supreme Court held that defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights were not violated where the police obtained the defendants garbage from the trash collector when he picked up the defendants’ garbage from the curb. The court concluded that the defendants had “exposed their garbage to the public sufficiently to defeat their claim to Fourth Amendment protection.” The court acknowledged that the present case differed slightly because the garbage at issue in this case was located behind the house rather than in front of the house for pickup, but nevertheless concluded that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy. The garbage can was easily accessible to all passing through the common area. Moreover, Cox testified that the trashcan contained contents that she “want[ed] to get rid of” and stuff that she “didn’t want anymore.” Therefore, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the Richmond Police’s trash pull did not offend Jackson’s Fourth Amendment rights and affirmed the district court’s decision to deny Jackson’s motion to suppress and the subsequent conviction.
– Wesley B. Lambert