Can a private business search your stuff, then turn it over to the police?

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Question: What happens if you put your property in the hands of a private party, then that party calls the police and allows them to search it? Is the police search valid?

(For more general information in this area, see Searches by Private Citizens.)

Answer: A property owner has, at best, a limited expectation of privacy in property she has temporarily ceded to a private business. Usually, if an employee of the business stumbles upon evidence of crime as it relates to the ceded property, the police will be justified in conducting a follow-up search. 

In this kind of situation, the following circumstances are relevant in determining whether evidence from the search is admissible:

  • the property owner voluntarily relinquished the property to a private party
  • the owner intended the private party who conducted the search to have access to the property
  • the owner consented—either expressly or implicitly—to the private party searching the property
  • the content revealed from the private search was obvious, and
  • in conducting its own search, the police didn't go beyond the scope of the original, private search.

Note, however, that some state constitutions provide more privacy protections to their citizens than the federal Constitution does. In those states, it’s possible that a court would find inadmissible evidence that another court would admit under the U.S. Constitution.

Example: Employees of a shipping company inspecting a damaged package discovered a white, powdery substance and called federal agents. The agents examined the damaged package; tests of the substance showed it to be cocaine. The search was legitimate because it didn’t interfere with a reasonable expectation of privacy. (United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984).)

Example: A defendant gave his computer to a private business hired to repair it. The computer technician discovered child pornography pictures stored on the computer and called the police. The police viewed the obvious photographs in the same format as the technician, then enlarged them and viewed them as a slideshow. Even though the police enlarged the photographs, they didn’t see anything that the technician hadn’t already seen. The police search was essentially identical to the private search and the police learned nothing more than had been already been learned in the private search. The search was therefore valid. (U.S. v. Tosti, 733 F.3d 816 (9th Cir. 2013).)

For more on searches by the police, see Search and Seizure Principles and Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement.

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