Keep Sorting Trash after Garbage Law Falls

Chief Judge Andrus of the King County Superior Court ruled yesterday that the method chosen to enforce Seattle’s ban on food waste and compostable paper is unconstitutional. Although this protects Seattle residents from warrantless searches of their garbage by sanitation workers, it is important to note that the underlying law requiring separation of waste is still in effect. Bonesteel v. Seattle, No. 15-2-17107-1. Seattle Residents should keep sorting their trash.

The Supreme Court of the United States has long held that a citizen has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his own garbage because the garbage has to be delivered to a garbage company anyway. California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988). This means that the United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guaranty against warrantless search and seizure does not apply to protect Seattle residents from searches of their garbage by the government.

Fortunately for residents, the Washington State Constitution’s guaranty of privacy is greater than the federal guaranty of privacy. An agent of the state cannot conduct a warrantless search for evidence of wrongdoing without violating Article I, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. See State v. Boland, 115 Wash.2d 571, 581 (Wa. 1990).

Thus Judge Andrus struck down the enforcement portion of the muncipal law allowing sanitation workers to conduct warrantless searches of residents’ garbage for evidence of law-breaking. The searches violated the Washington State Constitution and thus exceeded the power of the City of Seattle to authorize.

There are limited exceptions to this rule: for example, if a trash collector sees evidence of wrongdoing in plain view during the course of his duties he may inform the police or otherwise act on the information. See State v. Graffius, 74 Wash. App. 87 (1994) (police officer’s observation of marijuana in partially open garbage can was not unlawful because it was in plain view).

It is important to note that this ruling invalidates only the enforcement provision of the law. Separating your garbage remains the law of the land.

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