Special agents will sift through plastic garbage bags containing foodstuffs, dirty diapers, discarded papers, etc. in an effort to find clues or evidence that may bolster an investigation. Depending on what is discovered, a search warrant may follow or a criminal investigation may be started. Obviously tax investigators are hoping to uncover financial related records, telephone records, EZ-pass invoices, as well as other leads that may be analyzed in the paper trail of evidence. Discarded bank statements indicating large balances, deposit slip copies, money wrappers, rubber bands, will all point investigators in a particular direction, possibly consistent with the original allegation or squeal.
In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement may rummage through ordinary household trash left curbside WITHOUT the need to obtain a search warrant. Once the trash is discarded and placed curbside, there is no longer a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the trash. However, law enforcement must exercise caution as to not violate the curtilage. Curtilage generally means the area inside the boundary of a person’s residence or business locale, which has been marked off by a variety of natural or man-made products. These consist of sidewalks, tree lines, shrubs and fences among others. Within this area an individual possesses a reasonable expectation of privacy pursuant to the fourth amendment to the Constitution. It is imperative that the investigators adhere to the rules of evidence and chain of custody, especially if findings are to be used in a legal proceeding.
Similarly, when an individual mails a letter or package via the U.S. Postal Service, any reasonable expectation of privacy pertaining to the outside of envelopes and parcels is lost. Special agents, in association with the U.S. Postal Inspectors can make a list or record of anything appearing on the outside of assorted mail. This is commonly referred to as a “mail cover.” Items such as postmarks and return addresses often provide worthwhile financial leads for the investigators. Particularly useful financial information would include names of banks, credit card companies and brokerage houses, as well as insurance carriers.