Privacy advocates say Seattle is violating residents’ privacy “on a massive scale” by having garbage haulers look through people’s trash to make sure food scraps are going into the yard waste, not the garbage.
A group of privacy advocates is suing the city of Seattle, arguing that having garbage collectors look through people’s trash — to make sure food scraps aren’t going into the garbage — “violates privacy rights on a massive scale.”
“A person has a legitimate expectation that the contents of his or her garbage cans will remain private and free from government inspection,” argues the lawsuit filed Thursday in King County Superior Court by the Pacific Legal Foundation.
Since January, Seattle residents have been directed to place food scraps in the same bins as their yard waste, so that the material can be composted, instead of into garbage cans, where it would end up in a landfill.
Public cooperation with the program has been so widespread that in April, Mayor Ed Murray said he was suspending the fines that would have been assessed against violators beginning this month, which would have been $1 for single-family homes and $50 for businesses and multifamily dwellings.
But it’s not simply the fines — it’s the inspection of their garbage — that plaintiffs in this lawsuit want to halt.
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Ethan Blevins, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said courts have held that even law-enforcement agencies need warrants to look through people’s trash.
When the ordinance took effect in January, garbage haulers were instructed not to rip open garbage bags to inspect their contents, but to pay attention to what they could see in transparent containers, loose or coming out of bags.
If it appears that more than 10 percent of a trash can’s contents are either food waste or recyclables, the drivers are to leave behind a tag, informing the resident of the violation.
The lawsuit estimates that some 9,000 of those tags were issued between January and April, including two to one of the eight named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Keli Carender, who since has moved out of the city.
City officials had planned to issue warnings during the first half of this year, and then start issuing the fines, which would have been tacked onto customers’ utility bills.
The 15-page legal complaint said the ordinance and the enforcement policies provide no clear way for a garbage collector to determine what 10 percent of a trash container is, and that different collectors have different methods of carrying out the requirements.
Plaintiffs say that in addition to the violation of privacy, the ordinance is a violation of residents’ rights to due process because it does not provide a clear way for a resident to appeal an alleged violation.
“The law makes garbage collectors the judges and the juries,” said Brian Hodges, Pacific Legal Foundation’s principal attorney.
Assistant City Attorney John Schochet said the office is in the process of reviewing the lawsuit. He had no further comment.
On Earth Day in April, Murray said the city appeared well on its way toward diverting 38,000 additional tons of material into compost per year, the goal that had been set for the third year of the food-waste program.