(Curtilage and Expectation of Privacy)

by Jim Parker CMI


For years, this topic has been asked and debated by private investigators throughout the country. This article was written in the hope to dispel any myths and clarify the confusion which surrounds the legalities of "trash runs".

To the trained investigator, what others discard in their trash as worthless kelter can be an invaluable source of information on your target. A wealth of intelligence can often be culled from what the average man (or woman) unwittingly throws in their refuse on a daily basis.

With that in mind, it's important to our livelyhood as investigators that we remain within the boundaries of the law. It is also important to our clients that the information we provide them with to assist in their case is obtained legally and ethically. While it may be doubtful that you would face criminal charges as a result of retrieving someone's trash without their consent (unless you commit a tresspass in the process) having valuable evidence deemed inadmissable in court is one of the best ways to lose a valuable client, and will also go a long way towards that client bringing a civil action against you which, even if you win, can result in financial ruin. So let's look at the legalities involved:

This basis of this issue goes back over a century before any Supreme Court ruling. William Pitt, in his 1763 address before the House of Commons in England said it most eloquently:

"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; but the King of England cannot enter -- all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement."

"Who's interested in the King of England?", I hear you ask. Well, the fact is that the entire US legal system has its roots firmly planted in English common law, and altough it may be worded differently, the above statement still holds true in modern USA by virtue of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution -- protecting the public from unreasonable searches and seizures.

It is perhaps not as widely known as it should be, that the 4th Amendment was designed to protect people from Government entities; it's intent was not to protect people from people -- or indeed people from Private Investigators. However, it is still important that we know the rules of the game before we play. Should we ever face legal action as a result of obtaining information in this manner, it may give you grounds to appeal any adverse court ruling and show diligence which may prove instrumental in you holding on to your finances and livelyhood.

Case Law:

The US Supreme Court, in California v. Greenwood [486 U.S. 35 (1988)] upheld that a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in garbage that has been left out with the curtilage of a residence or at the curb for collection and would thereby not be a violation of a persons 4th Amendment right if the garbage was picked up from there.

In United States v. Hedrick [922 F.2d 396 (7th Cir. 1991)], the U.S. Court of Appeals also held that the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy on garbage left on his driveway (50 feet from the house, 20 feet from and unattached garage, and 18 feet from the sidewalk) for collection, even though it was on the curtilage, because there was no fence or other barrier securing the area, and it was readily accessible to children, scavengers, snoops, or other members of the public.
See also: Unites States v. Shanks [97 F.3d 977 (7th Cir. 1996)]
See also: United States v. Redmon [117 F.3d 1036, 1038 n. 2 (7th Cir. 1997)]

In North Carolina v. Hauser [464 S.E.2d 443 (NC 1995)] the court held that a police officer who requested that a sanitation worker pick up the trash from the back of the defendant's residence and deliver it to the officer did not violate any constitutional rights to privacy as the trash was collected from the curtilage by the regular garbage collector, in the usual manner on the scheduled collection day.

California v. Greenwood et al

United States v. Booker T. Shanks

Unites States v. Joseph R. Redmon.

4th Amendment Searches of Garbage

Always, if you are in doubt, check with a competent attorney before embarking on anything you're not sure of. Some procedures ruled permissible under federal constitutional law are of questionable legality under state law or may not permitted at all.

Jim Parker is the former Chief Investigator for AIS, whose background stems from his experience as a UK Private Detective and is now a US Certified Master Investigator, Master Investigator of Network Telecommunications, and a recognized name in the investigative profession throughout the United States and beyond.

Copyright: 2002, Jim Parker
All Rights Reserved
Used by NAIS with permission