This week's Drug War Chronicle includes not one but two articles about garbage. This is the first. The second appears below or at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/305/garbage2.shtml.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court rule ruled Monday that police may not search someone's curbside garbage without a warrant. The ruling is in contradiction to a 1998 US Supreme Court ruling and similar rulings in other states, but the court held that the New Hampshire constitution creates a much stronger expectation of privacy than the US Constitution. In doing so, it explicitly embraced a "right to privacy" inherent in the New Hampshire constitution.
The ruling came in the case of John Goss, who was convicted of marijuana possession after police obtained a search warrant based on what they found when they peeked in the tied black plastic garbage bags he left at the roadside to be picked up by trash haulers. In their affidavit supporting the search warrant, police cited wire scrapers with marijuana residue as providing probable cause for the warrant.
In the subsequent raid on his home, police seized a small amount of marijuana and three pipes. Goss was found guilty and appealed, arguing that the warrantless garbage search was illegal.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed. "Personal letters, bills, receipts, prescription bottles and similar items that are regularly disposed of in household trash disclose information about the resident that few people would want to be made public," wrote Justice Joseph Nadeau for the majority. "Nor do we believe that people voluntarily expose such information to the public when they leave trash, in sealed bags, out for regular collection."
In its 1998 case, California vs. Greenwood, the US Supreme Court disagreed. "Society would not accept as reasonable [a] claim to an expectation of privacy in trash left for collection in an area accessible to the public," the justices wrote in upholding a similar warrantless garbage search case.
But in one indication of actual social attitudes toward going through people's garbage, after Portland, Oregon, police admitted doing trash searches last year, the local alternative paper the Willamette Weekly turned the tables. The Weekly's intrepid reporters searched the garbage of Portland Mayor Vera Katz and then-Police Chief Mark Kroeker and published personal information about the two gleaned from the garbage. The high officials, who had supported such searches against suspects, screamed to high heaven when it happened to them.
As for the US Supreme Court's finding, the New Hampshire jurists recognized it but found it wanting. "We acknowledge that the United States Supreme Court has held to the contrary... We are free, however, to construe our State Constitution to provide greater protection than the Federal Constitution... We do so here."
Visit http://www.courts.state.nh.us/supreme/opinions/2003/goss120.htm to read the opinion online.