California v. Greenwood: Case Brief

Instructor: Anthony Rich

Anthony is currently a County Civil Prosecutor and has his Juris Doctorate. He has been a guest lecturer at several local universities.

California v. Greenwood established that items set out in a public space and which are available for the public to inspect are not granted the Fourth Amendment right to require a search warrant before searching or seizing that property.


Police Officers in Laguna Beach were conducting a drug trafficking investigation. The target of the investigation was Billy Greenwood. During this investigation, the Laguna Beach Police Department asked Mr. Greenwood's trash collector to place Greenwood's garbage separately from the other trash they normally picked up. When investigating Greenwood's garbage, the police officers found evidence of drug use. They then used this evidence to obtain a search warrant, a legal document permitting the searching of property by police or the government, to search Mr. Greenwood's home. Once inside his home, they then found evidence of drug use and trafficking.

Using this evidence, the police arrested Mr. Greenwood. Greenwood then posted bail, or a certain amount to be released from incarceration to ensure court appearances, and was released from jail during the pendency of his criminal case. During this time, the police received information that Mr. Greenwood was again using and selling drugs at his home. The police once again conducted a search of his trash, found evidence of drug activity, and received a second search warrant to search his home based on this evidence. Once inside, they found more narcotics, and Mr. Greenwood was arrested again.

The trial court, in this case the Superior Court, dismissed, or dropped, the charges against Mr. Greenwood stating that the warrantless searches of Mr. Greenwood's trash violated the protection from unreasonable search and seizure in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. The government then appealed to the Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court; both courts denied the government's claims and the case was finally appealed the United States Supreme Court.


The central component of this case was whether or not a person has a privacy expectation, or right to privacy, when it comes to their trash that they put out on the curb. Furthermore, is that expectation protected by the Fourth Amendment's search and seizure clause?


The United States Supreme Court held that there was no privacy expectation for trash left at the curb. There is also no Fourth Amendment protection because the trash is accessible to the public at large.

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