Steroid Investigations and Trash Collection

IRS Special Agent Jeff Novitsky testified against cyclist Tammy Thomas at her perjury trial yesterday. Novitsky is a popular (and controversial) figure in the entire steroids in sports investigation. Thus, many observers were interested in his testimony. Reviewing the published accounts of Novitsky’s testimony, I found it particularly interesting how much incriminating evidence federal investigators found in BALCO’s trash.

Novitzky began searching through the trash behind the BALCO offices, learning when the company set garbage out and when it was collected. Each Monday night for a year, he hauled BALCO’s rubbish to a well-lit area nearby and sifted through it, he testified.

He found copies of e-mail messages and copious quantities of empty needle wrappers, he said. The latter led him to a medical-waste company where he found evidence of syringes, vials and performance-enhancing drugs that apparently originated at BALCO.

One of the “trash runs,” as he put it, yielded evidence that BALCO was buying epitestosterone from a company in the Midwest, he said.

Individuals closely involved in other federal steroid investigations have told me that evidence collected from the defendant’s trash was crucial to the prosecution’s case against the steroid dealer. The same was true with BALCO (“IRS agent: BALCO waste littered with drug evidence,” March 28).

The search of an individual (or business’) curbside trash does not require a warrant. The U.S. Supreme court has determined in California v. Greenwood that curbside trash is not subject to Fourth Amendment protections.

Court held that under the Fourth Amendment, no warrant was necessary to search the trash because Greenwood had no reasonable expectation of privacy in it. Although Greenwood had hidden the trash from view by putting in opaque plastic bags and expected it to be on the street only a short time before it would be taken to the dump, the Court believed it to be “common knowledge” that garbage at the side of the street is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.” Moreover, Greenwood had left the trash there expressly so that the trash collector, a stranger, could take it. Quoting Katz v. United States, the court concluded that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.”

The BALCO dumpster was one small thing that contributed to the downfall of the steroid distribution ring at BALCO. (That, and of course an IRS Special Agent’s obsession with BALCO that developed over the course of 20 years.)


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