New Ruling Grants Wider Protection

When law enforcement suspects that someone is involved with criminal activity, police officers may search the trash bins outside of their home for evidence of criminal activity. This method of investigation is typically referred to as a “trash pull” and can give police officers enough evidence to obtain a search warrant to enter the suspect’s home. The Supreme Court has held that trash placed on a public street or sidewalk is not protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and thus is regarded as “abandoned property.”  No warrant is needed to search a person’s garbage, and law enforcement does not need to establish reasonable suspicion to search garbage either.

Trash pulls lead to thousands of arrests a year and are routinely performed by police officers. However, police in Maryland were especially greedy in 2018 when they searched the trash of a man named Tyron Lyles. Maryland police discovered Lyles phone number on the contact list of a homicide victim’s cellular phone, and suspected that he may have been involved with the murder. Police officers conducted a trash pull and found three unknown plant type stems and three empty packs of rolling papers. The plant type stems were later tested positive for marijuana. With these findings, the Maryland police obtained a search warrant for evidence of drug possession, drug distribution, guns and money laundering. Gun, ammunition, marijuana and paraphernalia were found in Lyles home and he was charged with possession of a firearm by felon, which is a felony.

This case was the tipping point for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The court suppressed the evidence, finding that the small shreds of evidence found outside Lyles home was not enough to get a search warrant. Trash pulls are a useful technique for police officers but are subject to abuse. The court stated:

“What we have here is a flimsy trash pull that produced scant evidence of a marginal offense but that nonetheless served to justify the indiscriminate rummaging through a household. Law enforcement can do better.”

While the facts of this case may be unique, attorneys now have favorable case law to utilize when defending clients in similar situations. There are still conflicting cases that are not favorable for defendants with small amount of drug paraphernalia in their trash, but U.S. v. Lyles is a noteworthy case that awards wider protection for defendants.