Note: This information was current as of 7/2008.
Generally, Dumpster Diving is a legal practice that can potentially yield a great deal of valuable information for an adversary. However, the common belief that Dumpster Diving is “always” legal is not completely accurate. The following article addresses the legal aspects of Dumpster Diving. Discussion on the morality or arguments for and against is beyond the scope of this article.
One of the biggest issues in the legality of Dumpster Diving involves trespassing laws, as refuse bins are often located on private property. In this case other laws supersede any privacy issues. Trespassing aside, however, Dumpster Driving laws vary from State to State, and from Country to Country.
The 1988 Case of California vs. Greenwood (http://www.answers.com/topic/california-v-greenwood?cat=biz-fin) held that there is no common law expectation of privacy for discarded materials. Specifically, this case involved a Laguna Beach Police investigation in which evidence of drug use was obtained from curbside refuse bins. In that decision, the Supreme Court reached the decision that “It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public” (California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35, 39 (1988))
Currently, five States have upheld this Supreme Court decision:
However, there are State-specific limits to what can be taken from someone’s refuse. For example, a 1983 Minnesota case, Tennant Company vs. Advance Machine Company found that the theft of customer lists from refuse constituted damages. Similar civil cases, such as The Soap Co. v. Ecolab, Inc. , 646 So.2d 1366 (Ala. 1994); Camp, Dresser & McKee, Inc. v. Steimle & Assoc., Inc. , 652 So.2d 44 (La.Ct.App. 1995) have each held that there is no legal expectation to privacy in relation to Dumpster Diving.
On the other end of the spectrum is the city of Missouri Valley, Missouri which, in 2006, adopted resolution 06-10, "A Resolution Making it a Simple Misdemeanor to get into a Dumpster that Doesn't Belong to You or Your Business." Similarly, Layton, Utah has outlawed Dumpster Diving via city ordinance. It is clearly important to research city and State laws in relation to refuse.
It is often said “no lock, no regulation” in regards to dumpster diving. In other words, some feel that if a dumpster is not locked, that it is legally accessible to the public. For reasons mentioned earlier, this is not accurate, and is akin to saying that it is legal to enter someone’s home if the door is open.
While there is no official determination, the Theft Act of 1968 may apply in cases of Dumpster Diving in England and Wales, or as Common-law theft in Scotland. Dumpster Diving is illegal in Italy after a recent (2000) law, as well as in Sweden where the contents of a dumpster is the property of the dumpster owner. Canada law is slightly more complicated, where the Trespass to Property Act allows property owners and designated representatives to ban any person from their premises for any reason and for any length of time. However, this notice must be done in writing, and does not apply to curbside refuse.
In an environment with a strong “OPSEC Culture”, Dumpster Diving is a non-issue, as all sensitive refuse should be properly destroyed, rather than simply discarded.