When is it legal to take stuff from the trash?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

 

Usually, property that is left for trash collection is considered to be abandoned.  It is perfectly legal to take abandoned property, but it isn’t always easy to tell if property is truly abandoned.  The picture here shows household furnishings alongside trash cans left on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street just hours before the garbage truck is due.  Obviously, those household furnishings have been left for trash collection.

 

But what if the chairs and desk were there without trash cans nearby or not on trash collection day?  In those circumstances, it wouldn’t be so clear that this property was being abandoned.  The owners might be planning to move it somewhere or to have friends come and get it.  A safe way to avoid legal problems is to ask the owner if you can take the stuff.

 

If the stuff was next to or even inside of trash containers and those trash containers, whether dumpsters or ordinary trash cans, were on private property, then the stuff might not have been abandoned.  The owner might still be thinking about taking it back into the house.

 

If the stuff wasn’t abandoned, then taking it away without the owner’s permission is the crime of theft.  If you go onto private property to look through a dumpster or trash can, you can be charged with trespassing.  When you go to do legal research about trash ownership and abandonment, you are not likely to find much relevant information in the category of theft.   However you can find relevant cases and law journal articles in Google Scholar if you search for the words “dumpster” and “trespassing” in the same search.  Reading those cases, you can get an idea of how courts analyze whether property was abandoned and whether looking in a dumpster was a trespass in that particular case.  Here is one example in which somebody went hunting for discarded documents in a dumpster at a Walt Disney facility.

 

Searching for “dumpster” and “abandoned property” in Google Scholar, you will mainly find cases and articles about police conducting searches and seizures by going through trash containers.  Even the police cannot look in or take non-abandoned trash without permission of the owner or a judge who has issued a search warrant.  Here is one case with a good clear explanation of the law of abandoned trash. Smith v. State 510 P.2d 793 (Supreme Ct. Alaska, 1973).  Here is the seminal Supreme Court case on the topic of police access to abandoned trash.  California v. Greenwood 486 U.S. 35 (1967).

If you rent a storage facility, what kinds of contractual rights and obligations do you have?

Renting a storage facility for your things involves signing a lease, just like renting an apartment. Leases are supposed to state what rights and obligations the owner of the facility and the renter have and what should happen if either of them doesn’t complete the obligations. Typical terms in this kind of lease include: the cost of rent and when it is due, a description of the space available in the rented storage unit, a list of any items that the owner won’t allow to be stored there (explosives, biological hazards, illegal goods, flammable materials…), an explanation of the security deposit, a disclaimer saying that the storage place is not liable for injuries to people who get hurt while storing or removing their things, and the inevitable declaration about what will happen if the rent is not paid.

A lease is a form of contract which means that it is a legally enforceable agreement. Because it is ordinarily fully written when it is presented to the person wanting to rent storage space, rather than being the type of contract that is written by both parties to the agreement who negotiate the terms before writing them down, the renter has very little room to bargain. It is as if the owner of the storage facility is saying, “You can rent a space if you agree to all of these terms.”

If you are not willing to agree to any particular terms that are written on his lease, you have to write that on the document to be signed. To convey definitely that you do not agree to terms, circle or mark out or underline or otherwise note any terms you cannot agree to and state in the margin near each of them that you do not agree to abide by that requirement. Simply telling the facility owner that you do not accept his terms will not protect your interests.  A judge is unlikely to believe that you truly did not agree with the written contract if you read it well enough to discuss unacceptable terms with the owner and then you signed it anyway, without changing the written terms. Remember, of course, that the facility owner does not have to agree to your changes any more than you have to agree to his terms. He has the space you need and he can leave it empty or rent it to someone else if you refuse to use it according to his terms.

Some states have statutes for the sole purpose of backing up self-storage leases. These statutes give the rules for evicting the possessions because there isn’t a human tenant or business to evict from the owner’s premises. One of the standard rules is that the owner of the possessions is supposed to be notified by mail, at the last known address, that the owner of the self-storage place is going to sell the possessions if the owner of those possessions does not pay the past-due rent.

For people without homes, this is a completely ineffective form of notice. In Delaware, the law requires that in addition to mailing that warning, the self-storage place must advertise the warning in the newspaper.[i]  This would not be a big expensive embarrassing ad in the social section; it would be a small cheap formulaic ad buried in the classified section. A person who had missed enough rental payments to be at risk of having his or her possessions sold would either have to read all of the legal notices in the classified ads every day or somehow know exactly when the storage facility happened to be advertising.

In Michigan, instead of requiring the newspaper ad, the law says that owners of self-storage places should mail the warning to the last known address of the possession owner and also, if the renter has provided adequate information, to another person who is likely to know how to locate that person.[ii]   Some of these laws may seem to be insensitive to the difficulties of homeless people, however, if renters have not paid their bill and have not appeared in person or otherwise made themselves available for communication, the law has to protect the other party to the contract who has held up his end of the bargain.


[i] 25 Delaware Code Section 49.

[ii] Michigan Code 570.523 Section 3(4).

If you lost your home because of a tax lien or other tax matter, and the tax authority collected the debt by selling your home, there might be leftover profit from that sale that you are entitled to. How can you collect that if you don’t have an address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Property tax sales are generally conducted by the municipal or county governments that collect property taxes. This means that it is necessary to look in the municipal or county code to find the rules about when and how properties will be sold to pay-off a property tax debt.[i] The phrase “tax sale excess proceeds” will likely be the heading for the rules section about money owed to the homeowner after the house is sold to pay the tax debt.

The rules will establish a schedule for property tax sales. Perhaps the town or county only has one property tax sale every quarter. Maybe property tax sales occur on the last Friday of the month. Usually, the schedules establish a short enough time within which to sell the home that the person who lost the home can still be located. Knowing that there is likely to be money coming from the sale of his home, a newly homeless person must remain in contact with the agency (probably the sheriff’s department) selling the house.

Note that even though this question is about losing a house because of a tax debt, the same legal analysis works with any debt in which a house was collateral. If the house is taken away to pay debt and is then sold by the creditor for more than the amount of money owed, the debtor is supposed to get the leftover money. The legal right to collect those proceeds does not always come from any particular law. It is a simple common law principle of debt law that the creditor is only entitled to the amount he is owed.[ii] Some states might have this principle included in their statutes. Some agencies such as state departments of revenue or banking might include it in their separate regulations. Whether it is written in the law or not, this principle still holds true.

In the hassle and confusion of losing the house and trying to get re-established elsewhere while dealing with the financial papers and tumult, anyone might lose track of procedures. It is easy to understand how someone in these circumstances might not recall who to go to for a refund. In most states, the treasurer’s office keeps track of “unclaimed property” – a fancy way of saying money that rightfully belongs to citizens whom the government cannot locate.[iii]

“Unclaimed property” might be these excess proceeds from creditor house sales, unclaimed stocks, old certificates of deposit, neglected bank accounts, money from insurance policies, and more. Anyone who can use the Internet can search the state treasurer’s unclaimed property database.  A claimant can write a letter to the state treasurer instead filing a claim online. State agencies do understand that for many people the Internet is hard to use or is not available

In many states, simply finding the unclaimed property listing on the Internet is only the first step toward getting it back. There is usually a form to submit, a signature to be notarized, and that ever challenging proof of identity. As in dealings with the federal agencies, it is generally feasible for a homeless person dealing with the state treasurer’s office of unclaimed property, to either use a street address where he doesn’t live but can receive mail or to prove his identity with the help of social service agencies where he is known as a client.


[i] Here are some examples of tax office notices to homeowners whose houses are sold to pay off tax debts:
– Brazoria County, Texas

The sale of property for delinquent taxes may generate excess funds over and above the amount of judgment.  These funds must be turned over to the clerk of the court issuing the order of sale for safekeeping.  The retention period is two years from the date of sale.

Once the District Clerk’s Office receives the excess proceeds from a tax sale, a certified letter will be sent to the defendant within 31 days of receipt. To release the money, we must have a court order signed and dated by the presiding judge. The payor’s name, address, the amount of money as well as the person to whom the check is to be made payable must also be provided within the order.
http://www.brazoria-county.com/dclerk/AccountingRegistry.asp
Sierra County, California
“If the property is sold, lien holders and the former owner may claim proceeds in excess of the taxes and costs of the sale.”   http://www.sierracounty.ws/county_docs/collector/faq2012.pdf
Alaska
“If the proceeds of the sale of tax-foreclosed property exceed the total of unpaid and delinquent taxes, penalty, interest, and costs, the municipality shall provide the former owner of the property written notice advising of the amount of the excess and the manner in which a claim for the balance of the proceeds may be submitted. Notice is sufficient under this subsection if mailed to the former record owner at the last address of record of the former record owner.” Title 29 Alaska Statutes Chapter 45 Section 480.
http://touchngo.com/lglcntr/akstats/Statutes/Title29/Chapter45/Section480.htm (Site not published by the state of Alaska.)

[ii] Dan B. Dobbs, LAW OF REMEDIES- DAMAGES, EQUITY, RESTITUTION§4.1 (West, 1995)

[iii] State unclaimed property offices are listed at http://www.unclaimed.org/. (Enter as an “owner.)The federal unclaimed property office (where you can find out about pension funds, mortgage interest refunds, etc…) is at http://fms.treas.gov/faq/unclaimed.html.

If your pets cause damage or injuries, what can the law do to you?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Ordinarily, the civil law punishes pet owners by mandating that they pay for medical expenses and damage caused by a pet’s attack, even when it was a friendly attack with unfortunate consequences. Since those financial payments generally resolve the matter sufficiently, people are not often at risk of going to jail because a pet has ruined someone’s things or hurt someone. Unfortunately for poor people, human nature has a desire for revenge and attack victims who cannot collect any money for their suffering might just go to the police for support.

There is a spectrum of mild to drastic criminal charges that the police can use regarding pet attacks. When the attack was connected to violating the leash law or some other local ordinance, the criminal penalty will probably be a ticket.  It would probably be the kind of case that can involve an appearance before a judge, but will not involve a jury trial.

If it appears that the owner ordered the animal to attack the victim, the charge might be something like using the pet as a weapon to commit an assault. That kind of case and the others along this spectrum will be handled with all the formal proceedings of a jury trial. To prove that assault charge, there will have to be eyewitness testimony from people who saw the pet owner give the order or else there has to be background testimony from someone who knows that the animal was trained to attack people. When the prosecutor believes that the pet owner had such a lack of concern for people’s safety that he ignored signs that this kind of attack was likely to happen, the owner can be tried for criminal negligence. In situations when the victim died as a result of the attack, the owner can go on trial for homicide.[i]


[i] A helpful book with chapters about dog bites and dangerous dogs is Mary Randolph, EVERY DOG’S LEGAL GUIDE: A MUST-HAVE BOOK FOR YOUR OWNER, Nolo Press (2007).  See also the free pet law  material from that book’s publisher. http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/dogs-cats-pets/    Summaries of relevant cases and citations to state statutes are in Ward Miller, Modern Status of Rule of Absolute or Strict Liability for Dogbite, 51 American Law Reports 4th 446 (1987-updated to 2006).

When can the animal control authorities take away your pets?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Municipal ordinances (source 1source 2) regulate pet licensing as well as pets’ outdoor behavior. In most places, the local animal control authority, a.k.a. “the dogcatcher”, will take away a pet only when it has been found unattended and unleashed walking around on the loose or because it has injured people or other animals. But they can also take pets away if they believe those pets are victims of cruelty or neglect. Keeping pets outside in extreme weather and feeding pets out of garbage cans might both be considered cruel or neglectful treatment.

If you truly are the owner of an animal, as evidenced by a license, you have a constitutional due process right to be informed of where your animal is being held and what you have to do to get that pet released.[i]  Ordinarily, cities have ordinances or animal control authorities have internal rules that dictate how that information is to be conveyed to pet owners. To make a successful due process claim, you have to prove that either the process delineated in the rules or ordinances wasn’t followed or else that the lack of such rules or ordinances denies you due process.

The most common way of tracing an animal’s owner is by using the contact information on the animal’s tag. If the pet owner became homeless after that tag was issued and the contact information no longer leads the shelter or animal control office to the right person, there is not always a second way of trying to track the owner down. Similarly, if the animal does not have identification, like a collar tag or microchip, etc… showing how to contact its owners, the animal control authority generally does not have a legal obligation to try to track down an owner; the resources necessary to reach out into the community trying to find out whether anyone is missing that animal just make it too expensive a practice for the law to make it mandatory.

Although the law does not specifically say so, common sense says that if the tag information is no longer correct or it is possible that the animal’s tag came off or someone in animal control doesn’t do a job right, pet owners have to take responsibility for contacting the local animal shelters when a pet is missing. If you don’t find the pet on your own, you might never get it back; the shelter could let someone adopt your pet or, worse, they might destroy it.

Violating some pet behavior laws will result in fines rather than confiscation of the pet. Failure to clean up after a pet or walking it without a leash or not preventing it from incessantly making noise are likely to result in a fine as penalty. Most of the time, pet owners are notified of these legal violations by getting a ticket, like a traffic ticket, in the mail. But, police officers can simply hand that ticket to someone who does not have a known mailing address. Even if you get a ticket (a.k.a. citation) that does not fully identify you by name and address and even if you cannot pay the fine, you still need to communicate with the animal control authority and possibly your local court, depending on how the pet ordinances are enforced in your town.

If you have not found a way to correct the lack of a leash or loud dog or other problem before going to court, it is appropriate to ask the court for help in obtaining a leash or other equipment that might be too expensive for you and which will put your pet in compliance with the law; sometimes animal courts have relationships with charitable organizations that can help with those sorts of matters. If the court is not able to intervene and help you equip for legal compliance, then ask them for the names of agencies that might help and, at the same time, ask if the court will consider dismissing the ticket against you if you return to court in a week or two with the leash or muzzle or pooper scooper that will prevent the offense from occurring again.


[i] Com. v. Gonzales, 588 A2d. 528, 535; 403 Pa. Super 157, 169 (Pa. Super. 1991); Clark v. Draper, 168 F.3d 1185, 1189-90 (Cir. 10, 1999).

Are you allowed to own pets if you don’t have housing for them?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

It is a simple fact of American life that while humans are allowed to walk the streets unaccompanied and without identification, animals cannot. Befriending a bird in the park and involving oneself in that bird’s daily schedule might feel like having a pet, but it is not. Having a pet means being responsible for the animal’s care and safety. In the case of large pets like cats and dogs, not only does this mean feeling internal personal responsibility for feeding and walking a pet, but also having actual legal responsibility for licensing and vaccinating the animal. If an unlicensed animal, or even an untagged animal that is licensed, is captured by municipal authorities, it can be put to death.

Licensing a pet makes owning it legal.[i]  In order to get that license, a pet owner has to pay a fee and give an address where he and the animal live. This doesn’t always mean that by definition a homeless person cannot legally have pets; it can mean that the pet has to be registered to a legitimate address where mailings relating to the pet will be passed along to the homeless owner. This address can be a private home or an organization where the homeless person is known well and maintains regular enough contact to pick up messages.

Your local pet licensing requirements are in your city code.  Find the city code at  http://www.municode.com/library/library.aspx or, if your city is not included there, by linking through the federal government’s roster of cities. http://www.usa.gov/Agencies/Local_Government/Cities.shtml.  Looking at your city’s website, you will not only find the code containing ordinances about pet ownership, you will also find the form to submit for that license.


[i] For more information about pet licensing laws, see Margaret C. Jasper, PET LAW, Oceana Press (2007).

If you don’t own or rent a place in which to store your possessions, but store them in somebody else’s home, do the homeowners have the right to move or use your things? Do they have the right to throw them away if you are gone for any particular period of time?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

There are two areas of law to look at in answering these questions: contracts and torts.  A contracts analysis would consider whether the homeowner had agreed to take care of your things or at least store them for a particular amount of time and whether you had any obligations in return. Torts is the area of law that is known more casually as “personal injury.”  A torts analysis would look at the act of “conversion” which means taking unauthorized control over someone else’s possession.  A milder tort claim that might apply but would be harder to prove is “trespass against chattels” which is a claim against someone for unauthorized use of possessions.[i] Both a contract claim and a tort claim would be made in civil court, probably small claims court depending on the monetary damage that has been suffered.

In the contract dispute, the person whose possessions were taken or discarded seeks to show that the homeowner stopped protecting or storing the possessions. In other words, the terms of the storage bargain were violated. (A contract claim would probably apply to a situation involving the homeowner’s use of the stored possessions only if he used them so much that they wore out; only in that extreme kind of situation would it be likely to say that using the stuff breached an agreement to store and care for it.)

Since contract law comes from past cases, rather than statutes, the facts of each dispute are compared to previous cases with similar facts. Those facts have to be backed with good proof. If the possessions were in a church locker because that church had a policy that poor people could store things there for up to thirty days, then the court claim would have to include a copy of that written policy or admissions from church officials about the existence of the policy.[ii]

If the possessions were suddenly gone from a friend’s basement, the claim would have to demonstrate where and for how long the friend agreed to keep the stuff. Relatives of the homeowner might serve as witnesses to the agreement. Perhaps the homeless person can convince the court that he had another place where he would have moved his things had he not relied on this friend to keep them.

Clearly, there will be different facts involved with each situation, but the person trying to prove that an agreement existed always has to show as much detail as possible about the content of the agreement and the way both of the parties to the agreement knew those terms. Then, conveying that the terms were not followed will convince a court that the contract was breached.

To make the conversion claim, it is necessary to prove that even though the homeless owner of the possessions put them in the custody of the homeowner:
1. the homeowner took control over the stuff and
2. the homeless owner of the stuff could not get it back after asking for it or was not even able to ask for it.

Under the common law, and still in many states, the court claim to sue someone who has converted someone else’s possessions to his own is called “trover.” In filing that kind of lawsuit, it is proper to say something like, “the plaintiff is suing the defendant in trover to recover money damages for the television that plaintiff stored in defendant’s house and which defendant converted to his own possession by installing it in his den and subsequently refusing to return it to the plaintiff.” Although this example, which was only intended to show how the words “trover” and “conversion” relate to each other, makes a claim for money damages, that is not the only remedy for conversion. It is also proper to sue for return of the possessions, especially if they have sentimental value.

Note that a conversion claim is not only used when someone appropriates another person’s stuff. It is also correct to make a claim for conversion if someone storing things threw them away or gave them to someone else or otherwise made them unavailable to the owner.[iii]

See the Homeless Law Blog posts about court for information about bringing a contracts and/or torts case in civil court.


[i] It has been said that both of these tort claims are really the same when somebody takes and carries away another person’s possession. Wint. V. Alabama Eye and Tissue Bank, 675 So. 2d 383 (Ala. 1996).

[ii] This example is used to demonstrate that even though the word “homeowner” is generally being used in this section, the legal reasoning applies to any private favor-type of arrangement that is not as formal as having a fee-based storage deal.

[iii] To find cases involving conversions in the state where you live, look in a West case digest or a legal encyclopedia published by West using the topic “trover and conversion.” The digests and encyclopedias will show dozens of ways that people take control over other people’s things. They will also have lots of real-life examples of how people tried to get their stuff back or tried to prevent the person who was only supposed to store it from using it.