No warrant needed to search trash, court rules in Minn. drug case

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2014 - 8:21 PM

Drugs found in Brownsville, Minn., man’s garbage bag led to warrant to search apartment, which turned up more drugs.

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A trash hauler in St. Paul.

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Think that bag of garbage you set out for pickup is private property? The Minnesota Court of Appeals begs to differ.

On Monday, the court ruled that a police officer’s warrantless search of a man’s garbage in Brownsville, Minn., which turned up trace amounts of drugs, was constitutional. Once the trash was placed out for collection, Andrew Serres couldn’t reasonably expect that the contents would remain private, the court said.

The evidence from Serres’ garbage led to a 2012 search warrant for his apartment. There, police found more than 4 ounces of marijuana and a small amount of psilocybin mushrooms. He was convicted of two felony counts of fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance and received a short jail sentence.

Serres, 47, argued that any evidence seized during the apartment search should have been suppressed because the warrant application contained information obtained in an unlawful garbage search. Without that information, he argued, probable cause to search his apartment was lacking.

He also contended that the garbage search was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, because the subsequent warrant application didn’t establish that the trash was located on land connected to his apartment building. That area is considered “protected” and part of the residence itself for Fourth Amendment purposes, he argued.

In his warrant application, Dan Coogan of the Houston County Sheriff’s Office wrote that he observed a bag of trash on a corner on a normal collection day. In it, he found a rent-paid certificate made out to Serres and two unlabeled prescription-pill bottles containing white powdery residue and a plastic bag holding “green leafy residue,” which tested positive for THC.

When the District Court rejected Serres’ motion to suppress the evidence, he appealed. In doing so, he cited several appellate cases from other states that said trash can’t be searched or seized by police without a warrant based on probable cause.

Houston County objected to the Appeals Court’s even reviewing the case, saying that Serres hadn’t properly raised such issues in District Court. Serres agreed that he had not done so, but asked the Appeals Court to consider his case in the interests of justice.

In its 12-page ruling, the Appeals Court said a resident of a multifamily residence has a diminished expectation of privacy in common areas because those areas aren’t subject to the exclusive control of one tenant. A householder may reasonably expect that items placed in a garbage can are private, but not once the trash is set out on the curb for routine pickup, the court said.

It pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t prohibit warrantless searches of garbage left for collection beyond the immediate area around the residence. It’s common knowledge, the high court said, that plastic garbage bags left beside a public street are vulnerable to many kinds of invasions, from passersby to animals.

The state’s appellate courts previously have ruled that the state Constitution doesn’t prevent searches of garbage set out for collection. A decision to depart from that precedent is not something the court would have done cavalierly, the ruling said.

“Further, it is not the role of this court to make a dramatic change in the interpretation of the Minnesota Constitution when the Supreme Court has not done so,” the ruling said.

 

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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