Court: Police can't rummage through garbage without warrant

The Oregon Supreme Court disagreed with more than 50 years of state case law by ruling that Oregonians retain a privacy interest in the garbage they leave on the curb for pick-up.

Posted: May 10, 2019 3:25 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Supreme Court disagreed with more than 50 years of state case law by ruling that Oregonians retain a privacy interest in the garbage they leave on the curb for pick-up.

That means police can't simply rummage through it even after a truck hauls it away.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reports the court wrote on Thursday that the state's residents have a reasonable expectation that after they leave their trash in opaque bins covered with a lid, no one will inspect it without a warrant.

"In our view ... 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 wrote in her 6-1 majority opinion.

The Supreme Court ruled in the case of Tracy Lynn Lien and Travis Allen Wilverding, who shared a home and were convicted of methamphetamine dealing after police from the 16,000-resident city of Lebanon asked the community's garbage hauling company, Republic Services, to pick up and set aside the contents of the pair's garbage on collection day in 2014.

Police then dug through that trash, found evidence of drug activity and got a warrant to search the home. That led to the convictions.

The high court found that police had violated the Oregon Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches because Lien and Wilverding had privacy interests in their trash and because the garbage hauling company acted as "an agent" of police by collecting the trash for a detective.

In setting aside their convictions, the Supreme Court reversed earlier decisions by then-Linn County Circuit Judge Daniel Murphy in 2014 and the Oregon Court of Appeals in 2017.

The ruling clashes with all or part of past rulings by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1968 and 2007, when the high court OK'd warrantless searches of trash collected by motel maids or curbside garbage haulers. In both of those cases, what police found led to drug convictions for the suspects.

The majority opinion noted that even the U.S. Supreme Court has said Americans don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy "in trash left for collection in an area accessible to the public." But the U.S. Supreme Court also said individual states are free to impose "more stringent constraints on police" based on their own constitutions.

Thursday's ruling applies to curbside refuse collected from private homes. It doesn't appear to apply to trash thrown in public garbage cans in public places. It's unclear how the ruling might affect residents of condominiums or apartments, where trash is thrown in communal bins.

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