Writing Sleuths – The Down and Dirty Art of Trash Hits
September 23, 2022
A trash hit, also known as a trash cover or dumpster diving, is a technique many private investigators (PIs) use to successfully mine for clues. For writers, it’s a handy technique for your fictional sleuth, but before your character dives into trash, take into consideration the following legalities:
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a person who places his trash at the curbside for pick up has no reasonable expectation of privacy over the trash. However, several municipalities have enacted local ordinances making curbside trash off limits to anyone but the trash man. Also, four states (Hawaii, New Jersey, Washington, and Vermont) may have state supreme court rulings that conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
If your fictional PI obtains trash while she’s on private property, she may face civil and criminal penalties for trespassing and invasion of privacy. Private property, for example, might be a trashcan in someone’s garage, a fenced-in backyard, etc. In our investigations business, when we’ve legally accessed trash, the trashcan has not been on someone’s private property (in our municipality, curbside trash is public or state property, and accessing it is legal).
Although the U.S. Supreme Court and most state laws allow trash recovery, there may be municipal ordinances that forbid this, especially in areas where trash companies serve a number of homes with shared dumpsters. Years ago, there were dumpster trespass ordinances passed to keep the homeless from living in them, and those laws apply to “visitors just reaching for a few bags.” Enforcement of such laws is lax, but the existence of such municipal ordinances might make for an interesting scene with your fictional PI and a local police officer.
Here’s a few tips for researching the legalities of trash hits for a certain region:
Search the website for your municipality or call the town clerk. Ordinances for most towns and cities are now on the web.
Contact your local reference librarian for assistance.
Foraging through trash is like an archeological dig. Your fictional sleuth might get down and dirty, but what’s uncovered may break a case clean open.