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).

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How can a squatter get the actual title to the property?

The earlier post about squatter’s rights identifies the behavior that can give a squatter rights to property.  But the legal right to property is only complete when the title is transferred. Usually, a title is transferred when a seller conveys property to a buyer.

A squatter attempting to get title is not buying from the seller; he or she is trying to get property for which no seller seems to exist.  The process for obtaining the title without having the last owner sell it to the buyer is called an “action to quiet title.”  Generally, there are three big steps involved in quieting a title:

  1. Searching for anyone who has a claim to all or part of the property, even if the claim is just a right to use the property for some purpose and not to own it.  For example, there might be a neighbor who has an easement that allows him to drive his truck through the property every morning.  This search is a big expensive investigation.  Most state laws about quieting title will require claimants to prove that they have thoroughly hunted in public records (vital and property)  and placed multiple ads in various newspapers as ways of searching for the current property owner.
  2. Filing documents in the appropriate court.  In this step, you have to write and submit assorted documents according to all of the rules required in your jurisdiction.  You might be able to find a sample of someone else’s action to quiet title by contacting or going to the court clerk’s office and paying for copies of the documents in that case.  If the clerk’s office will not provide you with a full case file, they might at least give or direct you to a list of things that you have to include in your court filing.  You can also look for sample forms in Justia.   Here is an example from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania section in Justia Forms: “Fraudulent Conveyance- Quiet Title Packet.”  If you cannot find online forms for your county, you will need to go to a law library and find a book of standard real estate forms.  Any form from a book must be re-designed to match the requirements in your county court’s document rules. Here are the quiet title instructions for Kansas.  Here are the Colorado quiet title instructions. Here is North Dakota’s quiet title law. Here is an example of a Complaint to Quiet Title in Florida. Here is an example of a Complaint to Quiet Title in California.
  3. Making your claim.  When you write the court documents in an action to quiet title, you will have to tell about and show the proof that you satisfied all of your state’s requirements for adverse possession and that you also satisfied your state and county requirements for taking action to quiet title.  This is a detailed descriptive writing project, not merely the simple work of completing a form.  If your documents are accepted by the court, you will be assigned a date to appear in court.  In court, you will have to answer questions that the judge asks you.   If the current property owner does not come to court that day, you might have to do an additional procedure asking the judge to give you a “default judgment.”  If the judge decides that you have satisfactorily proved your claim, he or she will give you a document to file with the deeds office.

Obituary For a Homeless Litigant

The Nov. 3, 2011 New York Times has an obituary for Yvonne McCain.  She was a homeless mother who, in 1983 sued the City of New York for failing to provide her small family with habitable emergency shelter.  Here is one of  the court decisions, the one that best summarizes a series of smaller parts in this very complex situation and which states definitively that families have to be provided with shelter.  This decision was rendered in 1987, but the full case didn’t conlude until 2008.  http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=3375906449026576910&q=mccain+koch&hl=en&as_sdt=2,39  Because Yvonne McCain had the courage to use the legal system, families in New York have been able to expect decent transitional housing for nearly a quarter of a century. 

 

How can a homeless person living in a car or van get auto insurance without having 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. ****
 
State auto insurance laws do require you to carry some sort of coverage on your automobile and you generally do have to prove that you are eligible to be insured in that state by providing the insurance company with documentation of your living in and, if applicable, owning a vehicle in that state. In other words, insurance companies expect that the address you list on your policy application will match the address on your automobile registration and driver’s license, both of which require you to notify state authorities when you change addresses. Also, because the insurance company has legal status as your agent in matters connected with that policy it does need to know where and how to contact you.
 
To obtain a driver’s license you have to show that you truly are the person you claim to be. The federal REAL ID Act requires states to cross check other identification sources when issuing driver’s licenses. The Department of Homeland Security summarizes the Act at http://www.dhs.gov/real-id-public-faqs and links to the official documents at http://www.dhs.gov/secure-drivers-license-documentation.  Each state has the flexibility to design its drivers license identification law in ways that accommodate the homeless and long distance truck drivers and others who do not reside in a fixed location. Some states, for example, accept ID verification letters from homeless service providers. 
 
The most efficient way to find your state’s current identification rule is to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles. http://www.dmv-department-of-motor-vehicles.com/  though you might find it from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ list.  http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=13574  You should be able to use e-mail to contact your DMV and simply ask what documentation they want you to bring. If you can’t get satisfaction from the DMV, get in touch with your local homeless service provider and ask that agency to help you get an address exception to obtain a driver’s license. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/directories/index.html
 
If your state driver’s license ID law does not yet have a way for you to obtain a license (and, secondarily, insurance), you can contact your state legislature and petition to have the law amended. The National Conference of State Legislatures has lots of REAL ID material for state legislators to read http://www.ncsl.org/Default.aspx?TabID=756&tabs=951,72,110#110  because state lawmakers have been developing these new identification laws for a couple of years.
Related sources:
The Insurance Information Institute has several helpful fact sheets about state financial responsibility laws. http://www.iii.org/insurance-topics/auto-insurance.  You can find an individual state’s auto insurance laws through its insurance commission. http://www.naic.org/state_web_map.htm
See my post about mail forwarding services to find companies that will register your vehicle for you.
 
 
 

 

Is it illegal to take food from dumpsters?

**** 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. ****

Sometimes because of local ordinances against providing food to the homeless, such as laws requiring costly permits to conduct group meals, hungry people seek out food that has been thrown away.  

If property, including leftover food, has been abandoned, then it no longer belongs to the previous owner and taking it is not stealing.  In most cases, generally when trash is outside and expected to be picked up by the trash collectors, the courts have considered the trash to be abandoned property. 

These abandonment cases were not about hungry people taking food.  These cases were about police officers who, in gathering potential evidence from garbage cans, were accused of conducting illegal searches.  See California v. Greenwood at http://supreme.justia.com/us/486/35/case.html and State v. Beltz 160 P.3d 154 (Alaska Ct. of Appeals June, 2008) and Young v. State 72 P.3d 1250 (Alaska Ct. of Appeals July, 2003).

When the trash is stored indoors or in a secluded area, it is often not considered abandoned.

Business-owned dumpsters, located on a business’s own private property and not shared by multiple businesses might not contain abandoned property.  Dumpster companies provide lockable lids, so businesses can lock their dumpsters and keep their trash inaccessible can lock their dumpsters.  Many businesses lock their dumpsters to prevent thieves from stealing account numbers and other private information.

If you think of locking the dumpster as a safety precaution that businesses can take to avoid problems when it is likely that thieves will go through the trash, you might also think that restaurants should take safety precautions when they know that hungry people take food from their dumpsters. Maybe the law should require that non-perishable food be bagged separately or that food be packaged against bacteria and labeled with the date.  To research this kind of idea, look for court cases about “premises liability.”  The most efficient way to find court cases is to go through a printed case index or an electronic database.  Google Scholar and Justia.com both reproduce lots of case decisions for free online. Look for print sources and other databases at your county law library.  See also the list of self-help legal research guides available from the State, Court, and County Law Libraries section of the American Association of Law Libraries. On the topic of food safety, know that there is a federal law called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that authorizes restaurants, caterers, stores, individuals, churches, etc… to donate “apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product” to non-profit organizations that will distribute it to needy people without being liable for problems that might be inherent in that food.

When trash is not considered “abandoned” and it is still considered the private property of the trash can or dumpster owner then, obviously, taking all or part of that private property is theft.  In some municipalities and states, there are specific theft laws punishing dumpster diving.  Even if those laws don’t exist in a particular place, generic theft laws can be used against people who take someone else’s property whether it was in the house, in the yard, in his hands, in a trash container or anywhere else.
Look for city and state laws at http://law.justia.com/.

There is a whole article about trash ownership and abandonment in  62 ALR 5th 1 (volume 62 of American Law Reports page 1) which is available at most county and university law libraries.  The article is titled “Searches and Seizures: Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Contents of Garbage or Trash Receptacle” and the author is Kimberly Winbush.

 

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).

Under the law, what happens if a homeless person is found dead and nobody knows who it is?

**** 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. ****

State laws require coroners and medical examiners to investigate unexplained deaths and deaths that are likely to have resulted from a crime (attack, illegal drug use, etc…).[1]  So, if you die outside, in an abandoned building, or at a shelter or anyplace else outside of a hospital without having had a recently treated medical condition, the coroner or medical examiner will have to figure out the cause of your death. This might be a quick death scene evaluation where they can quickly determine that the victim died of exposure or it might be a longer investigation at the coroner or medical examiner’s lab.

In connection with determining the cause of death and issuing a death certificate, the coroner or medical examiner typically has a legal obligation to identify the person who has died.[2]   This might involve going through the decedent’s possessions, accessing police records, tracing dental records, searching through databases of missing persons,[3] tracing DNA…  The state’s “disposition of body” or “vital records/ death certificates” law will likely list some investigative steps for coroners and ME’s needing to identify bodies.  If the law does not list investigative steps, the guidelines for these investigations could arise from coroners’ professional standards published by the state coroners’ or medical examiners’ professional association or else an internal policy manual for the particular county coroner or medical examiner’s office.[4] 

State laws use the phrase “unclaimed dead bodies” to refer to people who have died without identification and whose remains have not been collected by relatives or others prepared to provide for burial or other final disposition.  These laws, which are typically in the statutory code’s “health and safety” category tell when and how to dispose of the unclaimed remains.  Some states require burial or cremation at government expense.[5]  Some allow the state’s anatomical board to regulate disposal of the body.[6]  Some allow the bodies to be donated for medical research.[7]  Note that medical examiners post information about unclaimed dead bodies in the National Unclaimed Persons Data System.
See also the FBI site that lists found remains of missing and unidentified persons.


[1] Find those state laws through Justia, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, or even using a search engine with terms like “California law coroner.”

[2] Sample laws:

Pennsylvania –  35 PS 450.506.1
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no certificate of death or fetal death shall be issued in this Commonwealth if the body or fetal remains have not been positively identified unless the person issuing the certificate of death first obtains a DNA sample and submits the same to the Pennsylvania State Police for storage, for forensic DNA analysis, including nuclear and mitochondrial DNA typing, and for inclusion in any appropriate DNA database…”

Washington –  Rev. C. Wash 43.43.770

“It shall be the duty of the sheriff or director of public safety of every county, or the chief of police of every city or town, or the chief officer of other law enforcement agencies operating within this state, coroners or medical examiners, to record whenever possible the fingerprints and such other identification data as may be useful to establish identity, of all unidentified dead bodies found within their respective jurisdictions, and to furnish to the section all data so obtained. The section shall search its files and otherwise make a reasonable effort to determine the identity of the deceased and notify the contributing agency of the finding.”

South Carolina – Code 1976 17-5-57-
“If the body cannot be identified through reasonable efforts, the coroner must forward the body to the Medical University of South Carolina or other suitable facility for preservation.”

New York  – NY [Executive] Section 838 (McKinney)
“Every county medical examiner shall furnish the division promptly with copies of fingerprints on standardized eight inch by eight inch fingerprint cards, personal descriptions and other identifying data including date and place of death, of all deceased persons whose deaths are in a classification requiring inquiry  by the coroner where the deceased is not identified…

[3] Read Nancy Ritter, Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, NIJ Journal issue 256 (January 2007) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/jr000256.pdf which is a Department of Justice article about use of the state and federal missing person registries.

[4] These manuals are not easily available. Here are the standards for autopsies. https://netforum.avectra.com/temp/ClientImages/NAME/eed6c85d-5871-4da1-aef3-abfc9bb80b92.pdf  If it isn’t available in your public library or the county law library, you might find excerpts posted on the county medical examiner’s Web site which you can navigate to via http://www.statelocalgov.net/.

[5] Examples:  New York. Social Service Law Section 141; California Health and Safety Code Section 7104; Nevada Revised Statutes Chapter 451.400; DC Code Title 5, Chapter 14, Part 11 (5-14-11); Official Code of Georgia Title 31 Chapter 21.

[6] Examples: Texas Health & Safety Code Section 691.023; Colorado Revised Statutes 12-34-201; Florida Statutes Chapter 406 Part 50.

[7] Examples: Ohio Revised Code 1713.34; Arkansas Code Title 20, Chapter 17, Subchapter 7; Delaware Code Title 16 Chapter 27 part 02.