Seattle Residents Say Garbage Searches Violate Their Privacy

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 23, 2015

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As reported by the New York Times, Seattle residents are suing the city, claiming that its new garbage policy violates their right to privacy.


Dumpster DivingIn September, 2014, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting putting food in Seattle’s residential and commercial garbage. The ordinance became effective January 1, 2015.

Commercial establishments that generate food waste, as well as single-family homes and apartments, are required to have composting services. Seattle residents are given bins for food waste that can be put out on the curb, along with separate bins for other types of trash.

According to the city’s website,

Seattle sends approximately 100,000 tons of food waste 300 miles to a landfill in Eastern Oregon each year, resulting in higher costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on the success of Seattle’s existing recycling and yard waste ordinances, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) projects that the food waste law will divert 38,000 tons of food scraps from the landfill via composting, thus helping the city achieve its goal of recycling and composting 60 percent of its waste by 2015.

Starting January 1, 2016, the city will enforce the new law by issuing fines when more than 10% of a garbage container’s contents are “prohibited materials, food waste, food-soiled paper, and recyclables.”

Prohibited materials include “food-contaminated cardboard, paper napkins and paper towels.”

The fine for single-family properties would be $1 per month. The fine for a multi-family or commercial property could be as high as $50 for a third offense.

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Dumpster Diving

According to the Times, the eight Seattle residents who sued agreed with the city’s green goals but felt that the garbage inspections violated their privacy rights under the Washington State Constitution.

The plaintiffs are also concerned with how the fines would be assessed, saying that their due-process rights would be violated by basing fines on an eyeball inspection of their trash.

As the Times says,

Formal legal proof of a 10 percent violation, the lawsuit said, would require hard math: The radius and twice the height of the can would have to be multiplied by Pi (3.14, not Pie, as in a thrown-away dessert) and then divided by 10. 

Private Trash?

The US Supreme Court ruled in a 1988 case that throwing something away puts it into the public domain, so that under federal law police don’t need a warrant in order to search a suspect’s garbage.

However, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that police did need a warrant to search a suspect’s trash for evidence.

Dumpster diving has also been used to gather competitive intelligence. As CBS reported, in 2001, employees of Proctor & Gamble were accused of rummaging through the garbage of rival Unilever. However, since the dumpsters weren’t on private property, this wasn’t illegal.

If you have questions…

If you have questions about privacy laws, or if you feel that your rights to privacy may have been violated, you may wish to consult a civil rights attorney or privacy law expert in your area.

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