**** 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).