State Supreme Court Extends Property Rights To Private Trash

The Oregon Supreme Court voted 6 – 1 on Thursday, May 9 to overturn 50 years of state legal precedent and extend “privacy interests” to include garbage left out for collection, for both the bins on the curb and their contents after being hauled away. 

Justice Lynn Nakamoto, writing for the majority, said, “In our view […] most Oregonians would consider their garbage to be private and deem it highly improper for others […] to take away their garbage bin and scrutinize its contents.” 

Now, police will not be able to search Oregonians’ garbage without a warrant, whether in curbside bins or indirectly from private collection services. 

The case which prompted this decision was the 2014 arrest of Tracy Lynn Lien and Travis Allen Wilverding of Lebanon, suspected of dealing methamphetamine. The Lebanon Police Department asked Republic Services, a private company contracted for waste collection in Lebanon, to separate Lien and Wilverding’s garbage and allow them to search it. Republic complied, and the police found “evidence of drug activity,” enabling them to obtain a warrant to search Lien and Wilverding’s home, leading to their arrest. 

The Oregon Supreme Court now says the use of a private company (Republic) as an “agent” of law enforcement violated Lien and Wilverding’s Constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.   

The majority opinion notes that the U.S. Supreme Court currently holds that the owners of trash set out for collection do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” over it, but they also recognize that individual states have the right to “more stringent constraints on police.”  

The opinion included references to a 2002 Willamette Week (WW) story in which reporters collected and reported on the garbage of three former officials: Portland Mayor Vera Katz, Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker, and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk. Former Mayor Katz made a statement at the time that WW’s actions in this matter to be potentially illegal and absolutely unscrupulous and reprehensible.”  

In their own reporting, WW points out their investigation was carried out in response to an incident of Portland police engaging in “garbage pulls,” investigating personal trash for evidence, in this case the trash of one of their own officers. Portland police took a tampon from the officer’s garbage, tested it for drug use and, when the tests came back positive, obtained a warrant to search the officer’s home. This resulted in a “legal skirmish” during which Portland police officials defended the practice of “garbage pulls.” 

It is still unclear what this decision means for residences that use collective trash bins, like apartment buildings. 

Law enforcement officials in Lebanon and Linn County have not yet been reached by reporters, and it remains unclear how common the practice of searching personal trash is in Lebanon and Linn County generally. 

Lien and Wilverding’s case will now be remanded to Linn County Circuit Court. 

By Ian MacRonald