You Are What You Throw Away : As Supreme Court Rules Trash Is an Open Book, Garbologists Say How Revealing That Can Be

Times Staff Writer

T rash . . . garbage . . . rubbish . . . . The words have traditionally suggested termination, an ending point, it's over with.

Or is it?

According to this week's Supreme Court ruling, your trash is no longer yours. Once it hits the curb, it's fair--or unfair--game. As the court said, "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."

In decreeing that police officers without search warrants have the right to inspect curb-side rubbish for evidence (but not garbage near a dwelling, which remains personal property), the court also acknowledged that refuse can be extremely revealing. Justice William J. Brennan Jr., offering a dissenting opinion, wrote that "a search of trash, like a search of the bedroom, can relate intimate details about sexual practices, health and personal hygiene. A single bag of trash testifies eloquently to the eating, reading and recreational habits of the person who produced it."

Private detectives and university "garbologists" have known that for years.

Full of Useful Information

"It (garbage) is the single most useful tool to obtain information regarding the private lives of individuals," said Armand Grant, president of Teltec Investigations, a Malibu-based detective agency employing 13 private investigators.

"People do not think of destroying envelopes from the bank. They do not think of destroying telephone numbers they have dialed that are on their phone bills. You would be surprised what one would find in trash."

An investigator for 22 years, Grant claims he has "broken open some monolithic cases by opening up trash. . . . It provides leads you follow on where certain other items might be found. . . . The thing you do is find out when trash is picked up and pick it up before the trash people get there. It's done very quickly."

Archeologist Luanne Hudson, who has taught a garbology class, Modern Material Culture Studies, at USC, pointed out that she and other ethical garbologists typically disregard bills, letters, bank statements and other personal effects when studying trash.

But, even so, it's incredibly revealing.

"What you throw away can reveal your age, whether you have children, your economic level, possibly your educational background but at least your intellectual level, your level of health, whether or not you're a stable member of the community and many other things," she said, adding that research obtained by studying garbage is often more accurate than that collected from personal interviews.

"You can reconstruct behavior from actual items. Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists will go out and ask people, 'How many bottles of beer do you consume a week?' A person will usually tell you what they think you want to hear. At the front door, they tell you one thing; at the back door, their garbage tells you another."

Added archeologist Fred Gorman, a former director of Harvard University's field school and one of the developers of the University of Arizona's Garbage Project: "We can learn a great deal about people's domestic consumption habits that span not only the range of foods consumed, but also medicines, potentially addictive substances, alcohol, tobacco and other types of narcotics. It's possible to gain information even of a financial nature."

As trash pro and former FBI agent John T. Lynch sees it, "What you learn from garbage is that everyone is human. You see all the good and all the bad."

Lynch, who heads John T. Lynch Inc., a Los Angeles-based investigation firm with offices in New York and Chicago, recalled that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once had his garbage stolen from his residence.

"He got himself a trash compactor after that," said Lynch, who was with the FBI from 1943 to 1953. "He was a little unhappy about comments about the type of whiskey he drank--and the number of bottles."

Lynch agrees that garbage inspection is a useful tool in detective work. "I spent many days in the FBI putting together letters that were torn and thrown away. We found a lot of fugitives that way," he recalled.

"People are careless. You find such things as confidential material just crumpled up and thrown away. People (count on) the garbage man and his integrity to quietly and quickly dispose of even their secret information."

But despite the wealth of clues lurking in Hefty bags, Lynch is hesitant to go after them unless other means have been exhausted.

"It (a trash check) is probably not the first thing you do when you get a new case," he said. "You don't just send your investigator out to check the garbage. You do it when all the routine ethical and legal information banks are searched and possibly the neighbors have been talked to about the background of an individual."

According to Lynch, garbage checks are commonly performed in divorce cases when a spouse is having difficulty gathering financial information about a partner's assets. And he said that the technique has long been useful in industrial espionage, particularly in the days before paper shredders were standard office equipment.

He told of a "close friend" who worked for a major U.S. automobile company who "used to go and pick up the trash every night where they (a competitor's employees) were working on the designs of cars for the next five years. . . . The fellow would just stop and dump a couple of barrels of trash into the trunk of his car. One night he heard noises in his trunk on the way home, strange sounds. He got out of the car, opened the trunk and a rat jumped out and scared the hell out of him."

Some Retaliated

Some who have been harassed by unofficial garbage collectors admit having booby-trapped their trash in retaliation. After singer Bob Dylan's garbage was repeatedly stolen in the late '60s and early '70s by a man who billed himself as "the world's greatest authority on Dylan," Dylan struck back.

In his 1986 Dylan biography, "No Direction Home, The Life and Music of Bob Dylan," former New York Times pop music critic Robert Shelton quoted the artist when he was in the midst of his rubbish frustrations: "We loaded up our garbage with as much dog (feces) as we could--mousetraps, everything--but he still keeps going through my garbage!"

Raking through refuse as a dirty but virtually dead-sure means of obtaining information about an individual even turned up on an episode of television's "L.A. Law" last season. On the show, lawyer Ann Kelsey represented a client who claimed he invented a tea bag but had received no compensation from a tea bag firm that insisted he did not invent the bag.

"Kelsey enlisted the services of a private investigator on the suspicion that the corporation wasn't producing all the documents relating to the tea bag," recalled "L.A. Law" writer and co-producer David Kelley. "The investigator pulled several garbage bags (from the tea bag corporation) into Kelsey's office, dumped them on the floor. They combed through it and sure enough, Kelsey found the smoking gun memo that allowed her to vindicate her client, win the case and make our viewers happy."

Is It Time to Worry?

Should those same viewers--or anyone else who places bits and pieces of personal effects on a curb--be concerned? Should they act differently given the prevalence of garbage snooping and the Supreme Court's refusal to prohibit it?

"If you're engaged in criminal enterprise, you should be concerned," said Robert Goldstein, a professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law. "And if there's anything you want to keep private, you should be concerned. . . . One way to protect garbage is that state legislatures or city councils can enact ordinances that protect privacy in garbage. . . . The Supreme Court got into regulating the police because the state legislatures defaulted."

(In Los Angeles, said a Police Department spokesman, there are no laws prohibiting trash picking. But in Beverly Hills, once considered a scavenger's paradise, a city ordinance stipulates that trash can only be collected by firms licensed by the city to do so, a spokesman for the Beverly Hills Police Department said.)

Teltec's Grant advised that those who wish to keep their secrets secret should use paper shredders and then soak what's been shredded.

"The trick with a paper shredder is to be sure that the shredded paper is falling into some type of liquid, not just falling into a trash can," he said. "If you pick up shredded paper, you can often put it back together. The best thing is to have it drop into water or bleach."

Fear No Garbologists

One group of professional trash analysts that consumers shouldn't have to fear, however, is the garbologists. William Rathje, the University of Arizona archeologist and anthropology professor considered to be the dean of garbology, emphasized that these modern archeologists do not analyze refuse on a dwelling-by-dwelling or individual-by-individual basis. Rather, he said, garbology searches for patterns common to neighborhoods, ethnic groups, cities, regions or entire cultures.

Thus, residents whose trash may be collected by scholars can rest assured that the investigators are not looking to see whether a particular person's reading habits run along the lines of Harper's, Hustler or K mart "Dollar Days" brochures.

"It's unethical, and I personally believe it's inappropriate (to examine personal effects or study individual patterns)," Rathje said, pointing out that the Supreme Court ruling has no effect on his work in that it concerns two areas with which he never deals: individuals and evidence.

In addition, Rathje is careful to work with the cooperation of the local sanitation department for research done through the university's Garbage Project. (Created in the early 1970s, he said, the project is now affectionately known as Le Projet du Garbage).

But given all the self-imposed restrictions, Rathje and others in the field still find the country's waste bins reveal far more information than they're equipped to codify and analyze.

This spring, for instance, students participating in the Garbage Project collected Phoenix trash after the city asked the group to determine the quantity, weight and volume of all the household recyclables discarded during a certain period. Rathje said the refuse--sorted into 20 different categories--is still being analyzed.

"The only reason I have any faith in our research is because we have a large number of samples collected over a long period of time," he said, noting that a major problem connected with seeking information about an individual through garbage is that there is no assurance that what is in a bag or can was put there by that person.

"Just because there is a garbage can behind a person's house doesn't mean it's their garbage," Rathje said. "My response to any kind of a law enforcement search is that I would be unsure of the value of the results. If you've put your garbage out in a public area, people can take things out or put things in."

Trash Manipulation May Rise

Such activity and other ploys may increase as a result of the high court's ruling and the publicity that trash picking has received.

That's the view of Bill Simcock, a detective who became well versed in obtaining information from garbage when he investigated organized crime cases for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office. Now the group manager in charge of investigations for CPP/Pinkerton's Los Angeles office, he said he applauds the Supreme Court for clarifying that curb-side trash is not private property. But he also fears ramifications of the decision.

As he put it: "This is going to kill us. You know, everybody's going to secure their garbage now."

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