Trashy Journalism
January 10, 2018 9:30 AM   Subscribe

“After much debate, we resolved to turn the tables on three of our esteemed public officials. We embarked on an unauthorized sightseeing tour of their garbage, to make a point about how invasive a "garbage pull" really is--and to highlight the government's ongoing erosion of people's privacy.” Portland's top brass said it was OK to swipe your garbage--so we grabbed theirs. - Willamette Week
posted by The Whelk (37 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love how indignant they are. Goose, Gander, etc..
posted by leotrotsky at 9:35 AM on January 10 [11 favorites]


The ironing is delicious.
posted by Fizz at 9:37 AM on January 10 [10 favorites]


Aren't there rules about this sort of thing? Aren't citizens protected from unreasonable search and seizure by the Fourth Amendment?

Whether there's a 4th Amendment expectation of privacy in garbage left out on the curb is an interesting question that was a research topic in my legal research and writing class some time ago. Turns out there was a split and the law varied depending on your location. For the jurisdiction I was assigned, New Jersey (I think), there were good arguments for both sides.
posted by exogenous at 9:38 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Keep in mind that this was first published 15+ years ago, a year after 9/11. This is still something that people don't think about, but 2001 was really a beginning of this conversation. All the privacy arguments still felt pretty theoretical up to that point.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 9:38 AM on January 10 [22 favorites]


You'd think more people in high positions would own paper shredders.
posted by mikesch at 9:40 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


All the privacy arguments still felt pretty theoretical up to that point.

unless you were bob dylan

but yeah, this ww is what journalism is supposed to be about—challenging tptb and holding them accountable
posted by entropicamericana at 9:42 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


You'd think more people in high positions would own paper shredders.

Having a job with more influence and power does not correlate with intelligence. Just look at the current President of the United States.
posted by Fizz at 9:43 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


article is from 2002
posted by indubitable at 9:43 AM on January 10


Keep in mind that this was first published 15+ years ago, a year after 9/11.

Yes. This article appears to have been republished on the WW website in December 2017, as that's when Vera Katz (the mayor in 2002 mentioned in this article, and really Portland's last great mayor) died. It doesn't look like it has any new info, though. I'd hope many more people are using paper shredders now.
posted by lisa g at 9:45 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


In Bakersfield, if the trash goes to the curb, it is public domain. There is a lot of ad hoc recycling, and going through of the garbage 'round here. I started putting our cans out just before the truck comes, because we recycle already, and I got tired of the mess they made going through stuff.
posted by Oyéah at 9:47 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I was reading this yesterday and didn't realize it was a vintage piece until I hit the bit about the mayor's TV habits, which brought me up short. It's kinda surprising that even back in 2002 someone was still circling shows in the paper to know what to watch. That's old school.
posted by rewil at 9:54 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]


The problem with this piece is that the byline says it was updated recently, but there's no indication of what the update(s) might be.
posted by rhizome at 9:59 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Willamette Week: A 16-Year-Old WW Article About Digging Through the Mayor’s Trash Went Viral Over the Weekend
Sometimes, for entirely unclear and mysterious reasons, the internet resurrects things thought to be long forgotten. You could say it digs through the trash heap of history.

Such was the case with an article WW ran in 2002, titled Rubbish, about our reporters digging though city official's trash. The article showed up in a Reddit group called TIL—Today I Learned—over the weekend and has since racked up over 4,000 comments.

This morning, it was also subsequently tweeted by the Intercept journalist, Glenn Greenwald, who copied a link to the story to his followers.
I could have swore they did an update on the article a few years ago and went looking through then-Mayor Sam Adams’ trash, as well as the police chief’s, but I guess I’m misremembering.
posted by gucci mane at 10:03 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


WHAT WE FOUND
[...] Campbell's Chunky New England Clam Chowder with 100-watt bulb inside [...]


It me.
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:17 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


You'd think more people in high positions would own paper shredders.

It's a nuisance to shred everything you're throwing out. The officials here weren't targeted at their offices; the reporters grabbed their home trash.

Some garbage just isn't shreddable: the case at the heart of the drama involved police grabbing used tampons from someone's garbage to use as evidence of drug use. (Just what we need, more people attempting to flush tampons.)

Also, a shredder is likely to destroy crucial information like credit card numbers, and if it's done well (mixed after shredding, instead of letting the pages sit together), it can be hard to piece out specific info, but often logos and dates will still be identifiable. A shredder is pretty much useless for hiding purchase history - boxes are still recognizable after being shredded, and nobody is going to the effort of removing and shredding all their can labels.

The obvious solution is composting, combined with a trash compactor that turns non-compostable waste into unrecognizable mixed bricks.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:18 AM on January 10


About ten years ago my friend called me in a panic. He was buying a second hand motorcycle and had the money in an envelope, about 4000$, and he couldn't find it anywhere. We leafed through every book on the bookshelf, we looked in the freezer. We pondered if the dog ate it. We were about to tear up the carpet when we decided it was too early to eliminate the trash because maybe...

So we tipped it all out in the courtyard, and it was really gross but we picked through it bit by bit. As meticulously as archaeologists, not daring to miss a thing. I tore open one of those plastic shopping bags, all these cigarette butts and ash fell out and a crumpled up cardboard box. I uncrumple it, because who knows? It was a home pregnancy test kit.

They called her Ash! After the box. She's in primary school now and she's a really cool kid. You can find out a lot by looking through someone's trash.
posted by adept256 at 10:21 AM on January 10 [25 favorites]


You're just going to leave us hanging on the $4000 huh
posted by rhizome at 10:23 AM on January 10 [72 favorites]


In case you're wondering what happened to the police chief from this story in the last 15 years, he apparently left to become Commissioner of Police for the United Nations Mission in Liberia, which is not exactly where I expected his story to go.
posted by Copronymus at 10:24 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


Some garbage just isn't shreddable: the case at the heart of the drama involved police grabbing used tampons

*tosses disk drive into a shredder*

I'd argue you just arn't using the right shredder.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:25 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


We never found the money. He had to return the bike.
posted by adept256 at 10:26 AM on January 10 [15 favorites]


Caveat, IANAL, but a veteran reporter friend of mine said this is settled law, via a 1988 Supreme Court ruling -- which would have been before the events of this story.

Would be fine with me if more knowledgeable people pointed out something different/more relevant.
posted by martin q blank at 10:35 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


So my knee jerk reaction was that, yes, trash is fair game and everybody knows that, deal with it. But then I got to the part about the tampon and did a quick 180. You can't shred that, you (really) shouldn't flush it, so, like, what option do you have other than the trash? And what about similar items, like needles from insulin and condoms and tissues and who knows what else which could be analyzed for information that should be strongly 4th amendment protected? Clandestine midnight runs to the dump with your most intimate byproducts of living are probably not an option for most people.

The fact that you basically HAVE to use the trash for these things kind of demolishes the idea that putting out the trash is a voluntary relinquishment of privacy, or an act of consent to a search.
posted by Horkus at 10:40 AM on January 10 [16 favorites]


You may have to use the trash, but you don't have to leave it in a can at the curb in front of YOUR house.
posted by achrise at 10:52 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]


rough ashlar: I'd argue you just arn't using the right shredder.

I think the right question is "will it blend?"

[Not a shill for Blendtec]
posted by filthy light thief at 11:01 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Caveat, IANAL, but a veteran reporter friend of mine said this is settled law, via a 1988 Supreme Court ruling -- which would have been before the events of this story.

Would be fine with me if more knowledgeable people pointed out something different/more relevant.


I am also not a lawyer, but it looks like that Supreme Court ruling only said that going through people's garbage doesn't violate their rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In the Oregon case, the alleged victims didn't make their argument under the Fourth Amendment, so the Supreme Court case wasn't applicable. Instead, they argued the search violated their rights to possessory interest in their garbage cans under Article I section 9 of the Oregon Constitution, and the courts agreed. Here's an excerpt from a 2005 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling:
In summary, defendants placed their garbage inside garbage cans, in which they retained possessory interests, and placed those cans in locations clearly connected with their residences pursuant to agreements with garbage collection companies with whom they had contracted for removal of the bags of garbage.   Under those circumstances, the police infringed on defendants' Article I, section 9, possessory interests in their garbage cans and in the contents of those cans.
It doesn't appear that the case was appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, so I believe this is the settled law in Oregon.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:03 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]


You may have to use the trash, but you don't have to leave it in a can at the curb in front of YOUR house.

That's a story that ends with twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one is to be used as evidence against you.
posted by Copronymus at 11:04 AM on January 10 [36 favorites]


As far as 4th Amendment protections go, my understanding of the current law is that you have no expectation of privacy in garbage that you leave out on public property, so no warrant, probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion is required for police to search your curbside garbage--at least under federal law. You do have constitutional protection for garbage that is left within your "curtilage", which basically means the area within your property surrounding your house. So police need a warrant to search your garbage if you leave it on your front porch, but not after you put it out on the curb. The controlling case here is California v. Greenwood, the 1998 case martin q. blank linked to above.

However, as noted by ultraviolet catastrophe, states can make laws that give more privacy rights to citizens, and sometimes they do. So depending on where you live, you might have a state-protected interest in the privacy of your curbside garbage, but not a federal one.

Source: I am a lawyer, but am often wrong about legal things.
posted by skewed at 11:42 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I lived in Portland for six years and find it very interesting that a paper known for completely disregarding people's privacy and safety on many occasions (they are especially known for mishandling coverage of sexual assault and publishing people's contact info without permission) would write such an indignant article concerning anonymity.

pleassseeee.
posted by teamKRL at 11:42 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


Having a job with more influence and power does not correlate with intelligence. Just look at the current President of the United States.

I heard he's a very stable genius, though.

Anyway as another Oregonian familiar with the Willamette Week, I'm with teamKRL.

Point of comparison, in France if you leave out trash outside of designated pick-up periods (you can put it out an hour or two before pick-up is scheduled, specifics depend on the city), it's considered abandoned and as such, subject to a fine, which they know where to address because they search it for identifying information. And yet the privacy laws here are pretty strict.
posted by fraula at 12:36 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was all Mayor Katz? high-octane KXL motor-mouth Lars Larson? Meier & Frank? Twigged me to check the article date, as I left Portland for good in 2002.

What a weird way to find out Vera Katz just died. RIP
posted by wallabear at 12:45 PM on January 10


teamKRL: I lived in Portland for six years and find it very interesting that a paper known for completely disregarding people's privacy and safety on many occasions (they are especially known for mishandling coverage of sexual assault and publishing people's contact info without permission) would write such an indignant article concerning anonymity.

On the other hand, they did make their point by literally digging through people's trash, so at least they're disregarding privacy and safety consistently.
posted by clawsoon at 12:53 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


You do have constitutional protection for garbage that is left within your "curtilage", which basically means the area within your property surrounding your house.

And the last municipality that had trash pickup I was in would not remove or empty your trashcans if they were "on your property" - you had to place it in the curb and sidewalk right of way.

I guess you COULD have hired private contractors. Good luck on a clause in the private contract where you retained the rights up until the landfill emptying.

(and while you USED to be able to do your own burning and some places had an on-site incinerator - I believe Federal Air Quality laws make that a non-starter)
posted by rough ashlar at 1:01 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I must have mis-remembered my law school class of yesteryear and conflated federal and state rights in my mind. As penance, I'll share this nice review from 2000 (PDF) and a cartoon.
posted by exogenous at 1:20 PM on January 10


Keep in mind that this was first published 15+ years ago, a year after 9/11. This is still something that people don't think about, but 2001 was really a beginning of this conversation.


This was an important plot point in Star Chamber with Michael Douglas, in 1983. So it has been an issue people have been thinking about for a long time.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:35 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I remember being a bit taken aback in law school that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in trash, and that was 25+ years ago, long before 9/11 ... Fourth Amendment jurisprudence hasn't got any friendlier toward the individual since that time.

Edit: see also skewed's comments above.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:43 PM on January 10


We never found the money. He had to return the bike.

But he kept the kid?
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 3:58 PM on January 10


teamKRL, I've lived in Portland for decades, and I corroborate you. I personally know of at least one person who was potentially exposed to harm because WW completely misrepresented a situation. They've also been known to publish people's medical records without permission. (HIPAA rules are stricter now, and I hope they wouldn't get away with it today.)

The area of personal privacy is highly loaded and not well-settled in law. WW's little stunt wasn't helpful then or now.
posted by Weftage at 4:13 PM on January 10


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