You’re taking the trash out early one morning on the way to work. Across the alley you notice a nice picture frame set out beside your neighbor’s trash can. You walk over and check it out – nice condition, clean, the picture is nothing you want but the frame will fit perfectly in your living room with a new photo. You begin to walk back to your house, when suddenly a blinding light comes from a car you didn’t notice rolling up the alley. A loud voice comes from the police car.
“Sir, please stop. You are in violation of Grandview Ordinance 955.06 . Put the frame on the ground and place your hands behind your head!”
Could that happen in Grandview? I’m not sure if you can be arrested for picking items out of the alleys, but you certainly can be ticketed by the Grandview cops. Every couple months there is a story in the TVN police beat where people are ticketed “for removing material from alleys without a permit”. I wondered – what is the real deal on this law, can the city really make it illegal to remove trash – which was headed to packer trucks, then shredding and the landfill? Who owns stuff that is thrown away? Wouldn’t it be better for this stuff to be used by anyone who wanted it, or recycled for the value of the materials? And what is the “permit “ that is mentioned in the news stories, who gives these permits out?
Taking broken electronics from alleys
I have written about the topic of junk in the alleys before, please read this old post for more on why this issues is something I care about.
I have a more selfish reason to care about junk in the alleys, I belong to a small and nerdy group of people who look for old electronics equipment, do repairs, and use this old stuff. Watch this video from a YouTube guy who is well known for fixing discarded equipment.
My own attempts to learn electronic repair have been limited by a shortage of old electronics to practice on. Nobody tries to sell the old stuff on Craigslist, they either sell working equipment that is a few years old (for too much money), or they throw the old stuff in the trash. I have found a few treasures in the past, but I am limited in looking in the area around my house, I don’t want to have to explain to police officers why I want that old radio that is sitting on top of a trash can.
I asked for information from the Grandview police – exactly what ordinance is used to ticket people who take stuff out of the trash? How does one get a permit?
Official reply from Grandview Police
I asked the police chief some questions about the laws covering removal of trash from the alleys in Grandview, this is what I was emailed.
My name is Officer Janna Cohill with the Grandview Heights Police Department. I’m our Public Information Officer if you have any future questions. The ordinance is 955.06-Private Collection Restricted, and it is posted under the Streets, Utilities, and Public Service Codes. I will attach a copy of the ordinance to this email.
The police department started enforcing the ordinance approximately five years ago, because we noticed that many of the people driving through to “scrap” were also committing crimes, such as, theft and criminal trespass. The thefts included items in residential yards, open garages and construction material that were obviously not scrap or trash. This ordinance assisted with monitoring our alley ways and combating crime in our city.
As far as obtaining a permit for this, the Mayor has the authority to issue them, but I do not believe he is approving any at this time.
Officer Janna Cohill
This is the ordinance that was attached to the email.
955.06 PRIVATE COLLECTION RESTRICTED
After January 1, 1955, no person, firm, or corporation shall engage in the business of collecting, hauling, or transporting along or over the streets, alleys, or public ways of the City and garbage except as is provided for by this chapter.
(Ord 63-54. Passed 12-6-54)
The obvious question this information provokes – it says you can not “engage in the business of collecting”. But if you are just a Grandview resident taking a picture frame leaning against the neighbor’s trash can, you are not engaged in any sort of business. How can this ordinance apply to you?
What the internet says about taking trash from alleys
I found a number of online legal resources, all of them said that it is not illegal to take something that has been thrown away, and that discarded items are in the public domain. You can’t trespass, you can’t take things that are not clearly trash, you can’t make a mess while looking in the alley, but it is not illegal to take discarded items.
The highest law in the land, the Supreme Court, made a decision in 1988 called California v. Greenwood that is the final words on the ownership of trash. From the MyReporter.com website:
“CALIFORNIA v. GREENWOOD, 486 U.S. 35 (1988) stemmed from a 1984 investigation in Laguna Beach, Calif. Investigators suspected Billy Greenwood of drug trafficking and found evidence in his curbside trash. The evidence enabled them to obtain a full search warrant of his house which lead to his arrest, but charges were dropped because of the unwarranted search of his trash citing fourth amendment rights.
In California v. Greenwood, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of investigators and held that “the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home.”
Because the police want the right to go through trash looking for evidence of crime, the Supreme Court has ruled that all trash is public domain. Anyone who wants it can take it, police or private citizen.
If you are uneasy about the though of either police or snoopy neighbors looking in your trash can, understand this – your trash has always been a weak security spot, no matter what the laws say. If you throw important paperwork out without shredding, if you toss computer equipment away without wiping the hard drives, you have set yourself up for identity theft. It is your responsibility to keep vital information secure, so that nobody can use it. This is identity theft prevention 101, it has been hammered in the news reports about identity security, and by police who are trying to stop this crime.
Even if Grandview could make it illegal to take items from the alley, where do you think that stuff goes after it leaves the trash trucks? Do you think the people who work further down the trash pipe have security clearances?
Grandview considers the law as written
After I asked further questions about the ownership of discarded trash and the city ordinance, I was told that more consideration is needed.
I’ll be posting more on the questions about this issue. Stay tuned.
Previously – Junkman in the alley
Junkman in the alley, part two
The final word on taking junk from the alley –
Khouzam agrees that taking discarded stuff from the alley is legal