Privacy

Oregon Supreme Court: Cops Can't Collaborate with Garbage Haulers to Paw Through Your Trash Without a Warrant

Police now have to get a judge's permission before they rummage through your bins.

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The Oregon Supreme Court scored a victory for privacy rights yesterday, ruling that cops can't paw through your garbage without first getting a warrant.

The decision came in response to the case of a Lebanon, Oregon, couple, Tracy Lien and Travis Wilverding. Convicted of unlawful delivery of meth and heroin—both felonies—they appealed on the grounds that crucial evidence had come from an illegal, warrantless search of their garbage.

Back in 2014, Lebanon law enforcement officers asked the local waste management company to collect the couple's trash separately so police could search it. The company assented, and the cops found evidence in the garbage of illegal drug use, which was then used to obtain a search warrant for Lien and Wilderding's home.

Both at trial and after their convictions, the couple argued that this warrantless search of their garbage violated the Oregon Constitution's guarantee of privacy. On Thursday, the state Supreme Court agreed.

In its 6–1 decision, the Court rules that "privacy—freedom from government scrutiny—is a fundamental principle and value" protected by the state's constitution. Furthermore, this privacy "is grounded in particular social contexts." In other words, whether you're safe from warrantless snooping comes down to how great an expectation of privacy you have. When it comes to your trash, the Oregon Supreme Court says, the expectation of privacy is pretty high.

"Most Oregonians would consider their garbage to be private and deem it highly improper for others—curious neighbors, ex-spouses, employers, opponents in a lawsuit, journalists, and government officials, to name a few—to take away their garbage bin and scrutinize its contents," Justice Lynn Nakamoto writes for the majority.

Nakamoto's opinion alludes to a classic 2002 article from the alternative Portland paper Willamette Week. In that story, reporters from the Willamette Week rummaged through the garbage of Portland's mayor, police chief, and district attorney, all three of whom had defended dumpster diving as a valid form of evidence collection. The reporters turned up a number of incredibly private things, including a romantic note from the police chief to his wife.

When these reporters asked the officials about the things they'd found, most were less than pleased with what they saw as a violation of their privacy. That story, Nakamoto writes, reinforced just how private the contents of one's garbage could be.

In 2007, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that once a sanitation company takes the garbage from the curb, it's fair for police to paw through it. Thursday's decision establishes a new standard: Police cannot ask the sanitation company to specifically set aside a specific household's garbage to be searched later, after pickup, unless the cops first obtain a warrant.

Residents of the Beaver State can thus be a bit more confident that the contents of their bins will not come back to haunt them in criminal proceedings. So maybe it's time to finally recycle that broken bong.

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  1. Billy Greenwood on line 2 …

  2. So suddenly the third party doctrine no longer exists? If only my garbage man was also a telco.

  3. This strikes me as incorrect. Garbage is abandoned property, pretty much by definition. Once the trash-collector has it, you lose any rights over it.

    1. No, the trash collector is like a bank. He takes your property and put’s it safely into the ground for you so no one else can mess with it.

      1. After being mixed in with the garbage from thousands of other households, so no one can easily tell what garbage is yours.

        1. “Kid, we found your name on an envelope at the bottom of a half a ton of garbage, and just wanted to know if you had any information about it.” And I said, “Yes, sir, Officer Obie, I cannot tell a lie, I put that envelope under that garbage.”

    2. Maybe. The 2007 decision effectively says it’s not “abandoned” until it has been taken away from the curb by the trash company.

      Even under this decision, if the police had dug through the trash when it was at the dump, there would have been no problem. Where the police went wrong was in using the trash collector as an agent of the police by asking them to segregate the target’s trash and to treat it differently from other trash.

  4. I’m guessing that this isn’t the end of the story.

    1. AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.

  5. Back in 2014, Lebanon law enforcement officers asked the local waste management company to collect the couple’s trash separately so police could search it. The company assented, and the cops found evidence in the garbage of illegal drug use, which was then used to obtain a search warrant for Lien and Wilderding’s home.

    Cops too lazy to manufacture probable cause? I’m assuming they had a reasonable suspicion and weren’t searching everybody’s trash but just this one couple and we all know if you’re suspicious you’re as good as convicted.

  6. The real news in this writeup is that some actual journalism took place…. albeit by an alternative paper like Willamette Week.

    Would that there were more like them…

  7. You know the old saying: one man’s trash is another man’s evidence.

    1. yeah lol

    2. Michael Cohen?

  8. Didn’t the Oregon Suprema Corte watch “Star Chamber,” with Michael Douglas?

  9. I thought the cops couldn’t look through your trash w/o a warrant according to California v. Greenwood.
    I stand corrected.

  10. So the cops just go collect the trash themselves.

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