Marijuana stems and rolling papers found in single garbage search did not provide probable cause for sweeping search of residence. This recent ruling in U.S. v. Lyles clarifies that evidence found in such searches does not always create "probable cause" to believe evidence of crime will be found in the house.
Courts have long held that police may search trash that is taken to the curb, because any privacy interest in the contents of the garbage has been relinquished at that point. However, in this recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case the court ruled that three plant stems and three empty packs of rolling papers did not provide sufficient probable cause for a search warrant to search the entire home.
After the "trash pull" the Maryland police applied for and obtained the search warrant for evidence of drug possession, drug distribution, guns, and money laundering based on the stems and rolling papers. Guns, cannabis, and "paraphernalia" were found at the home, and the defendant was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The district court suppressed the evidence, finding that the warrant was overbroad, and prosecutors appealed. In affirming the district court's suppression of the evidence, the Fourth Circuit urged that evidence found in trash pulls should be viewed "with at least modest circumspection" and rejected prosecutors' argument that a single cannabis stem in the trash provides probable cause to support a warrant to search the home for drugs. The court noted the significance of the fact that the evidence supporting the warrant was discovered from only one single trash pull and thus could not be used as evidence of ongoing drug activity.
The court found that the warrant was “astonishingly broad”—it authorized the search of items “wholly unconnected with marijuana possession.” It likened the search warrant to an unconstitutional general warrant and held it was unreasonable for such a “relatively minor” offense. The court also rejected the government's "good faith" argument (which can allow admission of otherwise inadmissable evidence discovered by officers relying in good faith upon a warrant or other authority that was wrong).
Concluding a fairly strong-worded opinion the court noted: “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.”
Fourth Circuit rulings on issues such as the validity of search warrants are important in North Carolina criminal cases because our state is located in the circuit and therefore its rulings are directly applicable to issues regarding the protection of the United States Constitution. Since our courts have held that the North Carolina does not require protections of privacy beyond those guaranteed by federal law, these rulings become the baseline for similar situations in state court.
Our attorneys have experience litigating issues such as the validity of search warrants, specifically in the context of cannabis charges. We provide free consultations regarding Wake County criminal charges. Give us a call or fill out the form in the sidebar to schedule a teleconference or meeting at our downtown Raleigh office.