Tuesday, September 30, 2003

N.H. Supreme Court Rules Garbage is Private

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled yesterday that garbage is private even if left alone on the curb. The 4-1 ruling contradicts decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and high courts in many other states. However, the majority of the court said New Hampshire's constitution provides a stronger expectation of privacy than the federal constitution.

The decision came in a marijuana possession case in which police searched an Enfield man's trash twice and found wire scrapers coated with marijuana residue.

Based on that evidence and their observation that John Goss appeared to have a plant grow-light in his window, the police got a warrant to search his home, where they seized some marijuana and three pipes.

Goss appealed, saying it was illegal for police to search his garbage without a warrant.

The high court agreed, and ordered a lower court judge to decide whether the search warrant for Goss' home could have been obtained without the illegal evidence from the trash. Goss said it could not.

Justice Joseph Nadeau wrote for the majority that "personal letters, bills, receipts, prescription bottles and similar items that are regularly disposed of in household trash disclose information about the resident that few people would want to be made public."

The ruling continued to state "nor do we believe that people voluntarily expose such information to the public when they leave trash, in sealed bags, out for regular collection."

Justice John Broderick dissented, citing a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it was unreasonable for people to expect their trash to remain private, given that "plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public."

In that split decision a majority of judges concluded "the police cannot reasonably be expected to avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public."

  • New Hampshire Supreme Court Opinion

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