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High court finds that garbage is private

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High court finds that garbage is private

  • The state’s Supreme Court ruled that residents still have a privacy interest in curbside garbage, preventing police from conducting searches of trash bags and creating a definition of privacy that could possibly affect journalists.

Oct. 2, 2003 — The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Monday that garbage, even when left out on a public sidewalk or street for collection, is private.

The court acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that garbage is not private, but the justices in New Hampshire said their state constitution provides a higher degree of privacy protection than the federal constitution does.

The ruling only applies to police officers investigating criminal cases, and sets the definition of privacy only in terms of what constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure. But some reporters in the state have expressed concern that the court’s sweeping definition of privacy under the New Hampshire constitution might later be construed by a court to allow civil suits against reporters for their newsgathering methods.

Ralph Jimenez, editorial page editor of the Concord Monitor, said journalists may now need to reconsider how they access valuable information, such as taking a confidential fax from a recycling box.

“This is something the courts are going to need to look at,” said Jimenez.

Monday’s ruling negated the June 2002 marijuana possession conviction of John Goss. Police arrested Goss, 39, of Enfield, N.H., after officers examined his garbage, left three feet from the road, and found wire scrapers with residue that tested positive for marijuana.

The court ruled Goss had an expectation of privacy because the garbage was in a sealed bag, and he left it with the assumption it would be picked up for disposal “by authorized persons.”

“Personal letters, bills, receipts, prescription bottles and similar items that are regularly disposed of in household trash disclose information about the resident that few people would want to make public,” Justice Joseph Nadeau wrote for the majority.

Justice John Broderick disagreed, arguing that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy once their trash is placed on a public sidewalk or street. Broderick frequently cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 Greenwood v. California ruling that an individual can claim no constitutional right of privacy over his trash.

Jimenez, who wrote an Oct. 1 editorial critical of the decision, said that the newspaper generally dissuades its staff from going through sealed garbage bags, but does not prohibit the practice when all other methods of newsgathering are unavailable.

(Goss v. New Hampshire) MC

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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