Recycling

Seattle Citizens' Trash Now Safe From Unwarranted Government Snooping

A privacy win over a really silly composting mandate

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Bins
Credit: Smabs Sputzer / photo on flickr

A judge has ruled that snooping trash collectors in Seattle cannot simply go through garbage bins without any sort of warrant to determine whether its citizens are putting food in the wrong place. It's a win for the property-rights-focused lawyers of the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF).

The Foundation brought suit last year on behalf of a Seattle citizen over a law that mandated that no more than 10 percent of a resident's "regular" trash bin contain food waste. The food was supposed to go into the yard waste bin so that it could be composted.

Rather than simply asking residents to do this, the city decided to make it a law and mandate fines. The fines were minor—$1 per container violation—but nevertheless enforcement required permitting the guys picking up trash to snoop through containers to look for compliance.

The PLF sued to stop the unwarranted searches, and a judge yesterday ruled that they were in the right. While the Supreme Court's precedents on trash searches have stated citizens don't have a Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy, Washington State's constitution has its own privacy protections. It's under Washington's rules that PLF won. The PLF notes in a celebratory blog post that "if Seattle wants to rifle through your trash, it'll now need a warrant."

But they probably won't even need to bother searching. One of the sillier parts of this fight was that the mayor, after realizing that the very progressive citizens of Seattle were voluntarily doing as asked, had already suspended the implementation of the fines. The searches and privacy violations weren't even needed.

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    1. *shrug*

      there was a time. Now I’m just happy if the story gets covered. I’m double happy it was Scott. Who should get some sort of Viewer’s Choice Award.

  1. Refuse them access to your refuse and Gaia weeps.

  2. The fines were minor?$1 per container violation?but nevertheless enforcement required permitting the guys picking up trash to snoop through containers to look for compliance.

    How is this even remotely cost effective? Oh, it was a government program? Never mind.

    1. Job creation!

  3. The Foundation brought suit last year on behalf of a Seattle citizen over a law that mandated that no more than 10 percent of a resident’s “regular” trash bin contain food waste.

    You know what’s so dumb about this, you’ve got Waste Management workers determining 10%. In a garbage bag coming out of a trash can.

    Yes, Seattle is now one of those places full of ideas so dumb only intellectuals could think them up.

    Fact: nearly 100% of my food waste goes down the Disposall.

    Fact: My neighbors to the south compost. Guess what my front yard smells like in August when it’s 87f out and there’s a light breeze?

    1. Fact: My neighbors to the south compost. Guess what my front yard smells like in August when it’s 87f out and there’s a light breeze?

      Compost?

      1. Inasmuch as the elements that become compost is a 50 gallon drum full of rotting meat, fish and vegetables in 90 degree heat, yes.

        1. So, a dumpster behind a restaurant that’s never been picked up

          1. Yes, but with slightly less sour milk smell.

        2. If it smells that bad, they are not doing it right. Maybe you should quietly buy them a book on how to compost properly and slip it into their mailbox. There are few things as noxious and destructive as a half-assed environmentalist.

          1. Nope – you should quietly hire a couple of guys to come round during the night and push it over so that it spills out in their yard.

            Won’t make the smell better, but they might think twice about starting up again.

          2. Here’s the problem, the term “composting” as the city is using isn’t actually “composting”.

            You dump your food in a 50 gallon plastic garbage bin, it sits there for a week (or more if you miss pickup) then a giant waste truck comes by, takes the contents, then it’s driven to a composting center. Almost no one is actually “composting” in their yard. Some do, but the average person is providing the food and waste matter that’s getting composted at a city facility. So while your bin waits to be picked up, it’s just food scraps, warming in the sun.

          1. But, I should say, that the people who point that out bring up a good point. The city “claims” that you’re dumping all food waste “for composting” at the city facility. If you’re not supposed to compost meat or fish, then what the fuck is the city talking about?

          2. Here’s the city of seattle’s “acceptable” items for the food waste bin, which is then taken to the city’s composting facility:

            Food scraps
            Fruit and vegetables
            Bread, pasta, grains
            Eggshells, nutshells
            Coffee grounds, filters
            Tea bags
            Meat, fish, and chicken
            Dairy products – milk, butter, cheese
            Shells and bones

            So, for you guys that actually know something about composting, what do you make of that?

    2. Hitler?

      1. Citizen X, you are closer to the truth than you know. If by “Hitler” you mean what Hitler would have smelled like a week after you dumped his body in a 50 gallon drum sitting in summer heat.

        1. I thought Hitler was made of rare metal alloy.

    3. Hillary’s nether regions?

  4. “Rather than simply asking residents to do this, the city decided to make it a law and mandate fines.”

    If a government “asks” you to do something, it is almost automatically something you wouldn’t do otherwise. So, yeah, a government ‘request’ ALWAYS comes at the business end of a gun.

    1. What’s weird about Seattle is most residents were already doing this. This law was nothing more than legalistic social-signaling from the city. Literally. Nothing more.

      1. Umm…I guess one good thing that can be said about it is that it this social signaling is less destructive to the residents’ livelihood than the $15/hr minimum wage social signaling.

      2. “…after realizing that the very progressive citizens of Seattle were voluntarily doing as asked, [the mayor] had already suspended the implementation of the fines.”

        Yep, that lines up.

  5. Isn’t trash abandoned property? When does it stop being yours?

    1. Here, it belongs to the trash company. I guess I still have some claim to it.

    2. The recyclables belong to the city. Just try to take them, and see what happens.

    3. Funny you should ask. Federal courts have taken the position that trash is in fact abandoned property and that you have no property interest in it that would protect it against warrantless searches. Washington, however, always on the lookout to protect druggies from The Man, has legal precedent holding that, while that may be true as a matter of Fourth Amendment law, the Washington State constitution *does* protect the privacy of your trash. Unfortunately, the progs haven’t figured out a way to distinguish a warrantless search of trash for the purpose of enforcing the drug laws (bad) from a warrantless search of trash for the purpose of enforcing the recycling laws–at least, not one that would pass the straight-face test.

      Professor Volokh discusses the case and the governing precedents here.

      1. Hmm. That link doesn’t work. Let’s try it again: again.

        1. I give up. My HTML skills obviously suck, so just go to The Volokh Conspiracy (I can’t post the URL because its more than 50 characters) and scroll down to “State court partly blocks Seattle trash recycling/composting requirements, because of risk of unconstitutional searches.”

          1. Thanks, I’ll check that it. I’m all for protecting against unreasonable search and seizure, but this one just seems difficult to square with basic property law. Granted, I’m not at all familiar with Washington’s laws or constitution.

          2. http://tinyurl.com/

            That helps with these ridiculously long URLs.

  6. the very progressive citizens of Seattle were voluntarily doing as asked

    Deblasio is trying to butter up New Yorkers for this crap – for now it’s “voluntary” but I give it five years (generously) before someone’s garbage violation ends in BLAM BLAM BLAM.

    1. I wanted to make a professionally produced bumper sticker with an unflattering picture of the mayor with the text: I saw this man going through my garbage.

      But then I thought, ‘too far’.

  7. The Foundation brought suit last year on behalf of a Seattle citizen over a law that mandated that no more than 10 percent of a resident’s “regular” trash bin contain food waste. The food was supposed to go into the yard waste bin so that it could be composted.

    Were they smart enough to exclude things you shouldn’t compost from the stuff mandated to go into the yard waste bin?

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  9. My understanding is that one does not compost meat products, not because it makes bad compost, but because it attracts vermin way more effectively than vegetable scraps.

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