Judge Rules Seattle’s Warrantless Garbage Search Unconstitutional

Published May 25, 2016

King County Judge Beth Andrus ruled Seattle’s warrantless searches of garbage violates Washington State’s constitution, banning Seattle sanitation workers from looking for possible violations of the city’s composting law in residents’ trash.

The April 27, 2016, ruling in Bonesteel, et al. v. City of Seattle shows states are able to grant rights beyond those guaranteed in the U.S. constitution.

According to the Washington State Constitution, “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”

“By authorizing garbage collectors to pry through people’s garbage without a warrant, the city has promoted a policy of massive and persistent snooping,” said Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) attorney Ethan Blevins in a statement.

Blevins was one of the PLF lawyers who represented the eight plaintiffs.

“That’s not just wrong as a matter of policy, as the judge has correctly ruled, it is wrong as a matter of law,” said Blevins.

Andrus determined the City of Seattle has a compelling interest in ensuring food waste and compostable paper not be disposed of in landfills—in order to promote public safety, health, and welfare—but she concluded the city’s decision to conduct warrantless searches of garbage violated residents’ privacy rights.

Ordinance is Costly and Does Little

Todd Myers, director of The Center for the Environment at The Washington Policy Center, applauded the decision.

“My big critique of the ordinance is that it was very typical of the way Seattle deals with environmental issues,” Myers said. “It was very high cost and very high political profile, but it had very little environmental benefit.”

According to Myers, the reason the city took this step in the first place was to increase composting in landfills from 55 percent to 60 percent, in order to further reduce the amount of methane being released into the atmosphere.

“They’ve taken these draconian measures and spent all of this money, $400,000 annually on this program, to do something which will have very little impact on the environment,” Myers said.

Myers says the goal of increasing the compost rates at landfills is pointless, because all the city’s landfills already employ methane capture technology.

“Not only are we spending lots of money digging through people’s garbage for tiny increases in composting, but the impact of methane has already been stopped,” Myers said. “It’s a silly program all around and a perfect example of feel-good politics trumping environmental effectiveness.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.