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Spring 2000


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18. John Sues the Government for Violating of His Right to Privacy.
An inspector from the IRS with whom John is having a dispute over back taxes takes several documents from John's garbage. John sues the IRS for conducting an unreasonable search and seizure of his trash. Although John had put out his garbage for collection, he argues that every citizen has a legitimiate expectation of privacy in his garbage and the inspector's rummaging through his garbage constituted a violation of his right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. At trial the IRS argues that trash placed out for collection is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Since citizens knowingly expose their garbage to the public and voluntarily turn it over to third parties such as garbage collectors, the IRS argues, John had no legitimate expectation of privacy. Did the IRS violate John's right to privacy?



Commentary. "Privacy" is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution; nonetheless the Court has found a "right to privacy" embedded in the "penumbras" and implications of several amendments to the Constitution. In Pierce v. Meyer the Court held that the First Amendment protects the rights of parents to send their children to private schools and to teach them a foreign language. In NAACP v. Alabama, the Court protected the freedom to associate by preventing disclosure of an organization's membership list. Justice Douglas noted in Griswold v. Connecticut that the Third and Fourth Amendments protect a person's interest in the privacy and sanctity of the home; and the Fifth Amendment, he argued, protects people against being forced to disclose things about themselves. Douglas believed provisions in the Constitution and the prior cases added up to a general right to privacy relating to matters of marriage, children, and family. It should be noted, however, that Justice Black, sitting in judgment in the same case as Justice Douglas said that "try as [he] might, [he] could not find a right to privacy anywhere in the Constititution." Do you think that citizens have a right to privacy?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads in full as follows:

The Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, homes, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Our garbage certainly can contain all kinds of intimate details about our personal life. It can contain information about whom we are dating, what we like to eat, the state of our finances, the status of our health, and so on. Our garbage is also something that we intend to throw away. Is our garbage protected under the Fourth Amendment?

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