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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