Law firm claims victory for privacy by preventing warrantless searches of garbage cans

politics | Apr 29, 2016 | By Martin Barillas

On April 27, Judge Beth Andrus of the Superior Court of King County, Washington, ruled that some components of Seattle's law against food waste violated her state's constitutional protections for privacy. This means that employees of the area's waste collection services may no longer snoop in the garbage discarded by homeowners and businesses, even if it is to determine if there is excessive food waste found there. The decision, however, does not end the city's ban on discarding compostable waste -- such as food waste and compostable paper -- by residents and businesses.
 
An attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest legal organization, told Spero News that "Garbage receptacles are private affairs; there's private stuff in there." So said attorney Ethan Blevins of PLF, who represented eight families who sued over concerns about probable invasion of privacy. Blevins said that the state of Washington goes further than the U.S. Constitution in protecting citizens from illegal searches and seizures, and is one of the only states that protects its citizens from searches of their garbage cans. The practice amounted to warrantless searches, contended Blevins, who said it amounted to a "policy of massive and persistent snooping."
 
Blevins told Spero News in an exclusive interview that those snooping in garbage cans glean considerable information about citizens, including issues relating to sexual practices, health, and political leanings. 
 
In January 2015, Seattle Public Utilities told the public that fines would be assessed for those whose garbage consisted of more than 10% of compostable waste in their garbage. The suggested fines were only a dollar, but the plaintiffs focused on principle. Saying that the ban cannot be effectively enforced without an active inspection by public officials, Blevins said the ruling is a "ruling is a victory for common sense and constitutional rights."
 
For its part, Seattle Public Utilities said that trash collectors peered into garbage cans only to determine whether or not compostable trash was placed in the right garbage can. In an April 28 statement, the agency declared, "Our customers are doing a great job of keeping compostables out of the garbage and should continue to recycle and compost as much as possible. We are pleased that the court’s ruling recognizes the City's ability to regulate what goes into trash cans to address conservation and safety needs. ‘Plain view’ monitoring for dangerous items is vital to protecting worker and public safety. This was the most important issue at stake in this case." The agency added that it will study which changes are needed to the program. An appeal of the decision is unlikely. 
 

 

In her 14-page decision, Judge Andrus wrote: “This ruling does not prohibit the city from banning food waste and compostable paper in SPU-provided garbage cans." She added, “It merely renders invalid the provisions of the ordinance and rule that authorize a warrantless search of residents’ garbage cans when there is no applicable exception to the warrant requirement, such as the existence of prohibited items in plain view.”
 
Under the 2015 ordinance, garbage collectors were required to conduct a “visual inspection” of garbage cans to determine whether or not more than 10 percent of a trash can’s contents were made up of recyclable items or food waste. 
 
“A clear message has been sent to Seattle public officials: Recycling and other environmental initiatives can’t be pursued in a way that treats people’s freedoms as disposable,” Blevins said in a statement. “Seattle can’t place its composting goals over the privacy rights of its residents.”
 
The Pacific Legal Foundation was established in 1973 by members of the staff of Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California at the time.
 


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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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