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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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.