ANNAPOLIS – Trash talk prompted a lively debate in Maryland’s highest court Friday over whether Cambridge Police improperly searched a woman’s garbage in order to find evidence of drug possession.
Donna L. Sampson, of Cambridge, was convicted in Dorchester County Circuit Court of cocaine possession in 1998 based on a warrant police obtained after finding drug residue on plastic bags seized during six “trash runs” at her residence.
The State Court of Special Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that police acted improperly.
Acting on a tip that drug activity was occurring at the house, police seized trash bags left on her front lawn on garbage pick up days. Police said they were standing on a public sidewalk in front of her house when they reached over to grab the bags from her property.
“I think what the case law would say is that it’s an area accessible to the public, so it’s OK to do that,” said Assistant Attorney General Gary E. Bair.
Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bair told the Maryland Court of Appeals Friday that when Sampson put out the trash, she gave up her privacy rights by intending to have it taken away.
In California v. Greenwood, the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that people have no expectation of privacy when they put the trash out for collection, even if the trash is placed on their private property.
The Greenwood ruling also applies to other “shared” information, allowing police to access phone records and bank records, according to David D. Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
Sampson’s attorney, Stephen Z. Meehan, argued that such interpretations of the Greenwood case are too broad.
“Our argument is basically that it’s within her yard,” Meehan said. “That’s an extension of her home under the law. And you have a right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizures without a warrant.”
The Court of Special Appeals agreed, ruling police can obtain evidence turned over to them from trash collectors, but they cannot make a warrantless seizure on private property.
The Court of Appeals judges devised several humorous scenarios where the Supreme Court’s standard could be tough to apply. Judge Dale R. Cathell amused the courtroom when he asked Bair, the attorney for the state, if a “Neiman Marcus bag” could be considered trash. Bair said as long as the person understands they’re putting it out for collection.
Sometimes during the hour-long argument session, the judges had private chats and even talked over each other during the unusual legal argument before them.
The courtroom chuckled when Cathell devised a hypothetical “trip to Tanzania.” If he were to leave the trash out when leaving town Tuesday to be picked up Friday, he said, could he still reclaim the garbage on Wednesday?
Bair said the same rules of the Supreme Court case would apply. He said if the person expects the garbage to be picked up, they have already agreed to share it with someone else.