Instead of disposing of all of the trash of its citizens, the City of Fort Worth will collect and study the trash of a random selection of 400 citizens. Fort Worth will not seek the residents’ consent for the collection, and the residents affected will only be notified after their trash has been collected. The City of Fort Worth will collect the samples while a third party, Action Research, will examine the trash. NBC 5 first broke the story March 18, 2014, just before a City Council meeting. Fort Worth says the study will help gather information on recycling habits.
Searching trash, or even “trash surveillance,” is not without precedent. Trash surveillance is often used in criminal investigations. In California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court held that people have no expectation of privacy in the trash outside the “curtilage” of their home. In Greenwood, the Court determined that police did not need probable cause or a warrant to collect trash bags placed on a suspect’s curb. If you set trash out on your curb, you have no privacy rights in the contents. The closer the trash is to your house, the greater your expectation of privacy.
The reasoning and holding in Greenwood explains why Fort Worth is not seeking the consent of the affected residents–trash is legally considered abandoned property. Even though the purpose behind the searches of Fort Worth trash is to encourage recycling, trash provides insights into very personal aspects of citizens’ lives. There is certainly no expectation that the City would turn a blind eye to any evidence of criminal behavior, whether in the form of drug paraphernalia, which would be a Class C ticket, all the way up to items that can send an individual to the penitentiary for substantial period of time, like child pornography.
For now, it is important to keep in mind that you have no expectation of privacy in trash outside the curtilage of your home and that anyone could be looking through your trash.