Is it legal for someone to go through your trash?

It has come to the Resident’s attention that some readers have been wondering whether it is legal for someone to go through homeowners’ trash after it’s left out for collection. In response, the Resident did the research and found some interesting answers.

Recycling is off limits

According to a City of Jacksonville ordinance, it is a violation for anyone other than the City’s designated recycling service to take recyclables that have been left out on the curb for pick up. Although the ordinance doesn’t expressly state why, one of the reasons is may be that the City shares half of any profits with the recycling company with which it contracts.

Your trash (usually) isn’t off limits 

Dumpster diving and trash picking isn’t illegal by itself. A U.S. Supreme Court Decision in 1988, California vs Greenwood, found that garbage was public domain when left in the ‘outside curtilage’ of a home or property, i.e., meaning that those placing trash by the curb have no reasonable expectation of privacy. Some states and cities have passed local ordinances that make trash picking illegal, but the City of Jacksonville doesn’t have one.

The Supreme Court decision was based in part on its finding that the benefits to law enforcement of finding evidence of crimes, such as drug dealing, outweighed the costs, such as the expectation of privacy.

“Since respondents voluntarily left their trash for collection in an area particularly suited for public inspection, their claimed expectation of privacy in the inculpatory items they discarded was not objectively reasonable,” Justice Byron White wrote in the opinion. “It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left along a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public. Moreover, respondents placed their refuse at the curb for the express purpose of conveying it to a third party, the trash collector, who might himself have sorted through it or permitted others, such as the police, to do so.” 

However, if someone commits a crime during the act of going through abandoned trash or is verbally warned not to trespass (or with a posted sign) but comes back anyway, they could be given a warning or arrested, according to Florida State Statute. 

Under the Florida Litter Law, it is also illegal for someone going through trash to dump any of the trash on the street or on private property.

Your trash can yield a tremendous amount of private information about you

Some of the most seemingly innocuous materials in your trash can be used to discover a stunning array of details about you and even track your daily movements.  Empty pizza boxes, discarded mail, utility bills, credit card and bank statements and shopping receipts can be used to find out whether you go to the corner pizza delivery for pickup every week or get your favorite pizza delivered, your social security number, the amount you have in your bank account, who you have called and when, what credit cards you have, what you discuss in private written correspondence, the grocery store locations you shop in most and when, which may reveal the times you are likely to be out of the house.

As mentioned, police can go through trash without a warrant in order to find evidence of a crime, which they can then use to get a warrant. But, so can private investigators that are hired by litigants in civil, insurance, divorce and custody cases. Suffice it to say, trash on the curb is open season for thieves, trash pickers, stalkers and others.

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