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Posted by: tdt -

"Shouldn’t a person be arrested for going through my trash?"

Question: I am involved in a civil lawsuit. It’s been going on for almost a year. Recently I realized that someone is going through my trash. I think that they are looking for some sort of evidence that would make a difference in the lawsuit. When I tie up my trash and place it in the dumpster behind my house and someone goes into the dumpster to retrieve just my tied up trash, shouldn’t that person be arrested for going through my trash? I thought that was an invasion of my privacy.

Answer: The question asked really boils down to: who owns garbage once it is removed from the home and taken to the curb or receptacle. Anything within a person’s home is their property (assuming they do not have borrowed or stolen property) and no one could enter a person’s home and take any item without their permission, even trash, without it being a burglary.

Burglary of a habitation includes anything within a person’s home, whether it’s a stereo or a bundle of garbage. The same type of protection is extended to what a person has within their vehicle, storage unit or garage. But when property of any nature is taken from a person’s home, vehicle, storage unit, garage or the like, and placed in a commonly used trash receptacle, such as a trash can that is placed on the curb for pick up or a community dumpster, the trash has been effectively abandoned. Abandoned property cannot be stolen. The person who abandoned the property no longer owns abandoned property.

That does not mean that retrieving a person’s property (or trash in this case) from a trashcan or dumpster isn’t offensive. A person wants to believe that by placing no longer wanted or needed property inside a trash bag and then inside a dumpster means that it can’t be used ever again by anyone, especially not for the purpose of evidence in a court proceedings. But, sadly, that is not the case.

Once a person abandons property, they no longer have any control over that property. It is no different than if a person takes a box load of clothing to a donation receptacle. Once items are placed in the receptacle they are no longer the property of the donor. In the case of donated property, a person retrieving donated property out of a donation receptacle commits a crime. A person retrieving trash thrown out into the dumpster is not committing a crime, because the trash has not been "gifted" to anyone. It is not a gift to the city that picks it up. The items placed in a donation receptacle have been gifted and they become the property of the owner of the receptacle upon delivery.

Anyone may take anything out of a trash bin. As unsavory as that sounds, the fact is, if items placed in the trash may potentially come back to haunt the person placing them in the trash, then their disposal should be more final. Shredding personal information is an example of a way to destroy property that’s no longer wanted or needed, but the owner does not want anyone else to have the benefit of the property. A person taking papers from a trashcan has not committed a crime, but the use of the items retrieved might be. If someone takes a person’s personal information from a trash bin for the purpose of stealing that person’s identity, then a crime has been committed. If a person takes items from a trash bin to determine if the merits of a lawsuit are valid, or if the plaintiff or defendant have lied or withheld information, no crime has been committed.

Because trash is abandoned property from the moment it is placed within the public domain, and that includes the curb or alley way dumpster, anyone upset by what happens to that trash after the fact has no standing to complain. The only way to ensure that one’s trash does not become someone else’s treasure is the complete destruction of the trash. Keep in mind that a person’s trash belongs to them while it is within their areas of control such as their home or vehicle, but no longer belongs to them when put out for pick up by a trash collection company.

This article is meant for informational purposes and not as a substitute for sound legal advice. Please direct any questions to Ask the Lawyer at