Seattle Citizens' Trash Now Safe From Unwarranted Government Snooping

A privacy win over a really silly composting mandate


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.