Appeals court gives OK to police search of trash

Opinion reverses ruling in Cambridge drug case

January 17, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Police officers sifting through trash bags set out for collection do not violate the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

In a 4--3 decision, the state's highest court reversed and remanded a Court of Special Appeals decision to reverse the drug-possession conviction of a Dorchester County woman after evidence found in her trash was used to prosecute her. The court ruled that people have no right to privacy in their trash once it has been set out to be picked up.

"If the trash is placed for collection at a place that is readily accessible, and thus exposed to the public, the person has relinquished any reasonable expectation of privacy," Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote in the 14-page opinion.

In 1997, Cambridge police, without search warrants, took the trash bags of Donna L. Sampson six times from her front yard within arm's reach of the sidewalk, looking for evidence of illegal drugs. They found cocaine residue and used that evidence to secure a search warrant for her house.

Sampson was sentenced to eight years in prison in November 1998, after a Dorchester County jury found her guilty of simple possession of drugs and maintaining a common nuisance. She appealed.

Her attorney, Stephen Z. Meehan, said he was unsure whether he would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The majority and the dissent [opinions]were very thoughtful, and I think it is going to be a tough case to appeal," Meehan said. "But I think there are some issues there."

Gary E. Bair, chief of criminal appeals for the Maryland attorney general's office, said he was happy with the decision and predicted that it would have an impact on police work.

"Since the Court of Special Appeals decision was handed down, of course, police stopped doing what they had been doing, and now they'll be able to start again," he said.

Meehan said he is unsure how broadly the ruling can be applied. For example, he said, the ruling could mean that plastic storage bins on the lawn can be subject to a search. "I read [the ruling], and I think you could stretch it pretty far, if you wanted," he said. "It will create, at least at the intermediate appeal level, a whole new group of cases."

In the dissenting opinion, Judge Irma S. Raker wrote that because the search and seizure of the garbage occurred as a result of a police trespass into Sampson's yard, it "indicates that she had a significantly more legitimate expectation of privacy."

"The fact that [Sampson] may lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in her garbage does not change the fact that she has a reasonable exception of privacy in her front yard," Raker wrote.

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