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Minnesota court: Police can search garbage without warrant

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Garbage search

Minneapolis police officers search garbage and recycling bins in an alley after a Minneapolis police officer was shot Feb. 21 in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS — Police officers in Minnesota don’t need a search warrant to sift through a person’s trash because there is no expectation of privacy once garbage is placed outside for collection, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The ruling comes in the case of a Hutchinson man whose trash was searched without a warrant in 2012. A police officer found residue in David McMurray’s garbage that tested positive for meth, which led to a search warrant for his home and an ultimate drug conviction.

McMurray’s attorneys argued the warrantless search of his garbage was unconstitutional and that McMurray has a greater right to privacy under the Minnesota Constitution than he does under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guards against unlawful searches.

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s majority opinion found that because the language in both constitutions is the same, there’s no principled basis for interpreting the Minnesota Constitution to give greater protection. The U.S. Supreme Court has already found that a warrantless search of garbage does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

“Any member of the public could have accessed McMurray’s garbage without trespassing on his property, and police do not need a warrant to search items that are exposed to the public,” the majority found.

Justices David Lillehaug and Alan Page disagreed. Lillehaug wrote in his dissent that household waste contains intimate, personal information — such as details about health, relationships or financial status — that most people expect will stay private. In addition, he wrote, law enforcement can now obtain DNA from items in the trash or get information from discarded digital items.

He said there is a basis for interpreting the Minnesota Constitution to provide more protection than the U.S. Constitution, and he said there is a long-standing presumption that a warrant is required to search a Minnesota resident’s container.

“Our basic rights and liberties are at risk if government can seize and search Minnesotans’ household waste without a search warrant and, apparently, without even a reasonable articulable suspicion of wrongdoing,” Lillehaug wrote.

McMurray’s attorney, Ben Butler, said he was disappointed in the decision. He had no further comment.


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