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Recycle this! City's garbage spies kicked to curb

The city of Seattle’s policy of inspecting residents’ garbage and issuing fines for throwing away too much food has been declared an unconstitutional violation of privacy.

The ruling from Chief Civil Judge Beth Andrus on Wednesday granted a motion for summary judgment by residents who sued the city over the garbage can inspections.

The Pacific Legal Foundation brought the case on behalf of Seattle residents Richard Bonesteel, Scott Shock, Steven Davies, Sally Oljar, Mark Elster, Greg Moon, Keli Carender and Edwin Yasukawa.

PLF attorney Ethan Blevins called the ruling “a victory for common sense and constitutional rights.”

“A clear message has been sent to Seattle public officials: Recycling and other environmental initiatives can’t be pursued in a way that treats people’s freedoms as disposable,” he said.

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Blevins said Seattle “can’t place its composting goals over the privacy rights of its residents.”

“By authorizing garbage collectors to pry through people’s garbage without a warrant, the city has promoted a policy of massive and persistent snooping,” he said. “That’s not just wrong as a matter of policy, as the judge has correctly ruled, it is wrong as a matter of law.”

As WND reported in 2015, the city imposed a policy requiring garbage collectors to check residents’ trash and then red-tag the address or even impose fines if more than 10 percent of the contents were compostable materials.

But the lawsuit argued the Washington state constitution provides that, “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”

The complaint explained citizens are to be afforded due process before they can be penalized, and the state Supreme Court already has ruled that “a person has a legitimate expectation that, absent a warrant, the contents of his or her garbage cans will remain private and free from government inspection while placed curbside for collection.”

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Blevins said when the case arose that the “food waste ban uses trash collectors to pry through people’s garbage without a warrant, as Washington courts have long required for garbage inspections by police.”

PLF Principal Attorney Brian Hodges, who is managing attorney with PLF’s Pacific Northwest Center in Bellevue, said that while “it’s laudable to encourage recycling and composting, the city is going about it in a way that trashes the privacy rights of each and every person in Seattle.”

Seattle’s program had instructed garbage collectors to enter an “Exception Code 25” and “Rate Charge” into an onboard computer “any time the collectors observe more than 10 percent of combined recycling, food waste and compastable paper in a resident’s garbage can,” the judge explained.

Then they also were to leave “adhesive SPU red tags” on all “non-compliant cans.”

They also had the option of leaving a sign stating: “It’s not garbage anymore. We found food, recyclables or yard waste in your garbage. Per Seattle Municipal Code 21.36.083, food, recyclables and yard waste are not allowed in the garbage. Starting July 1, 2015, a fine of $1 will be levied on your garbage bill for each violation.”

The judge explained the state Supreme Court previously had ruled that a defendant’s garbage could not be searched by police without a search warrant.

“The Supreme Court held that any resident who places garbage in a can and puts it on the curb for collection reasonably believes the garbage will not be subjected to a warrantless governmental search,” the judge wrote. “In other words, we expect the collector to pick up our garbage and remove it for proper disposal; we do not expect that the government will search the contents of our garbage bags to identify evidence of wrong-doing.”

She continued, “If a person has a privacy interest in their own garbage and a garbage collector cannot give the garbage to a police officer to perform a warrantless search, then the collector himself could not conduct such a search either.”