In Florida, the police are limited in what and when they can search items that belong to you. Obvious examples include your house, your vehicle and your person. The police are not permitted to search any of those things unless they have a search warrant, they have consent from someone authorized to give consent to search or in other limited circumstances. A criminal defense lawyer can file a motion to suppress evidence that is obtained as a result of an illegal search in a criminal case and get it thrown out of court.
But what if the police want to search something that used to belong to you but has been abandoned or thrown away? Especially in drug cases, the police will often search a person’s trash without consent or a search warrant. The police will often look for evidence of drug activity like drug packaging materials or materials used to make drugs like in Methamphetamine cases.
In a recent criminal case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police received a call that the suspect placed a suspicious box in a trash can outside of his home. The police arrived and found the box in the trash can, which was in the street a couple hundred feet from the home. The police asked people in the area, and no one claimed ownership of the box. The police took the box to their police station and x-rayed it. They saw that it had a gun inside. When they opened the box, they found the gun and cocaine. The suspect who was identified as having placed the box in the trashcan was arrested for possession of cocaine and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The suspect’s criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress claiming the police did not have a right to seize the box and later search it without a search warrant or consent from the owner of the box. However, the court disagreed. The court determined that the suspect abandoned his reasonable expectation of privacy in the property when he threw it in the trashcan. A person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in trash left on the street. At that point, the items in the trash are readily available to the public.
This case would have been different if the suspect put the box in a trashcan on his property or in his home. Police cannot go onto someone’s property and search without a search warrant or consent. Or, if the suspect put the box in a trashcan on the street to temporarily hide it or keep it safe, stayed near the box and claimed ownership of it, that might dictate a different result. However, if a person puts an item in a trashcan and it is off of the person’s property, a judge could easily consider that abandoned property in which case a police officer would be able to seize it and search it.