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Discarded drugs do not justify house search, 4th Circuit says

AppCourt rules for Fort Washington man

A marijuana plant being grown for propagation thrives under artificial light March 30, 2000, at a home near Vancouver, Canada. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A marijuana plant being grown for propagation thrives under artificial light March 30, 2000, at a home near Vancouver, Canada. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Police officers’ discovery of small amounts of marijuana in a resident’s discarded trash does not justify a warrant to search the entire house, a federal appeals court said last week in ruling that guns found in a Fort Washington home cannot be introduced as evidence at the owner’s criminal trial.

In its published 3-0 decision Friday, the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals said law enforcement’s broad freedom to search, or “pull,” trash left outside a house does not necessarily provide probable cause for a search warrant of the home, particularly when the find is small and the search is wide-ranging.

“What we have before us 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,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for the court. “Law enforcement can do better.”

The 4th Circuit’s ruling in Tyrone Lyles’ favor was its latest foray into interpreting the scope of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 30-year-old ruling that people generally have no expectation of privacy – and thus no constitutional protection — in the garbage they discard.

The justices, in California v. Greenwood, did not intend for police officers to seize on trace amounts of discarded contraband to convince neutral magistrates to authorize searches of entire homes, the 4th Circuit said in agreeing with a federal district court judge that the search, though supported by a warrant, violated Lyles’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

The officers had found just three marijuana stems and some rolling paper in four trash bags yet secured a search warrant enabling them to seize computers, toiletries, jewelry and cell phones from Lyles’ home, where they also found guns, the 4th Circuit said.

“The connection of such things to the personal possession of marijuana is, to put it gently, tenuous,” Wilkinson wrote.

For example, “there is insufficient reason to believe that any cell phone in the home, no matter who owns it, will reveal evidence pertinent to marijuana possession simply because three marijuana stems were found in a nearby trash bag,” Wilkinson added. “At some point an inference becomes, in Fourth Amendment terms, an improbable leap.”

The Prince George’s County police searched Lyles’ trash as part of a homicide investigation in January 2015 after they found his phone number listed in the victim’s cell phone. Based on that search, the officers applied for a search warrant citing Lyles’ suspected possession of drugs in the home, according to court documents.

After guns were found, a federal grand jury indicted Lyles for possession of firearms by a convicted felon.

U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Chuang, who sits in the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, deemed the guns inadmissible as evidence at trial due to the constitutionally flawed search of the home.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland then appealed to the 4th Circuit.

In affirming Chuang’s decision, the appellate court warned police about reading too much into evidence found in trash cans.

“Precisely because curbside trash is so readily accessible, trash pulls can be subject to abuse,” Wilkinson wrote, noting that evidence can be planted in garbage or the refuse could have been placed by a house guest.

“None of this means that items pulled from trash lack evidentiary value,” Wilkinson added. “It is only to suggest that the open and sundry nature of trash requires that it be viewed with at least modest circumspection. Moreover, it is anything but clear that a scintilla of marijuana residue or hint of marijuana use in a trash can should support a sweeping search of a residence.”

Wilkinson was joined in the opinion by Judges James A. Wynn Jr. and Albert Diaz.

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in United States of America v. Tyrone Lyles, No. 17-4787.

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