In Seattle, the trash man can't poke around in your trash anymore

Good news, Seattle residents. Big Brother won’t be poking through your trash cans out by the curb anymore.

Well, technically that’s not true. The cops and other law enforcement agencies can still do it. In many cases your neighbors can too. But if you happen to violating the city’s new recycling and compost laws, the trash collectors won’t be able to open up your McDonald’s bags to see if you finished your McRib. (Seattle Times)

It is in Seattle that the constitutionality of the city checking what was in that teriyaki carton in your garbage became a court case.

On Wednesday, King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus ruled that what was in that carton stays private.

She ruled that the city’s ordinance allowing garbage collectors to look through people’s trash — to make sure food scraps aren’t going into the garbage — was “unconstitutional and void.”

She entered an injunction against its enforcement.

“I’m thrilled as can be,” said Ethan Blevins, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight Seattle residents.

This case probably wouldn’t be all that interesting if we weren’t talking about Seattle (which is only marginally to the right of Portland, Oregon) and the question of privacy outside the boundaries of your home. The law under discussion is one which Seattle passed to mandate the composting of food waste, essentially saying that you had to put all of your leftovers in with your lawn clippings and other “yard trash” rather than bagging it up with your other, non-recyclable garbage. The question of enforcement immediately arises in a situation like this of course. Who is going to ensure that you haven’t put the corn cobs from last weekend’s BBQ in with the diapers and ripped t-shirts? Absent some suspicion of other, more sinister criminal activity it’s unlikely the cops want to spend their day doing it, so the only obvious choice is to have the trash collector checking your Hefty Bags.

Not so fast, at least according to the judge in this case. That’s private material and the government doesn’t need to know what you’ve been eating or having anyone engaging in “food shaming” at your expense. Really?

Let’s leave aside for a moment the idea of the municipal government regulating your trash bags at that level. How can you ban an inspection of this sort? It’s already been long established in the courts that trash in a can inside your house is as private as any of your other possessions and John Law needs a warrant before they can look at it. But anything you put out on the curb is beyond the curtilage of your property and you have no reasonable expectation of privacy once you leave it out there for pick-up.

So what is the judge basing this decision on? Is it that the trash collectors aren’t cops so they can’t just go looking through your garbage for information? Private citizens can sometimes simply take things which are left out on trash day, though the rules vary from state to state and even by municipality. (In New York City, for example, you can take things from the trash if you are walking, but not if you load it into a vehicle. Hey… don’t ask me. I just work here.) But the people loading the trash trucks are either municipal employees or private contractors hired by the local government to do precisely that in most cases, so it’s tough to see what bars them from examining the contents.

Seattle passes some crazy laws and this is just another example. But still, I’d be curious to see what a higher court would say on appeal if this ruling were challenged. As far as I know, once you put something out on the curb on trash day it’s pretty much fair game.


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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 02, 2022