Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Oregon Paper Turns The Tables On Garbage-Sifting Prosecutors, Delight Ensues

A fifteen year old article got new
 life on social media this week, with dumpster diving
reporters going through public officials' trash to
make a point about privacy and rights. 
I'm not sure why this  is making the rounds on social media today, but everybody seems to be reviving an Oregon alt weekly newspaper's turning of the tables on nosy police and prosecutors.

Given that police sometimes tend to be overly nosy, i.e. sans search warrants, this decade and a half old tale is one to remember in case this ever happens again.

At the time, police in prosecutors in Oregon decided it was A-OK to go looking through people's garbage cans at curbside looking for evidence of a crime. That is, without a search warrant.

The logic was the garbage and recycling is abandoned property, so it was fair game to go looking through the refuse.

Since there's a lot of personal and potentially private material in garbage - recepts, notes, documents, evidence of where you shopped and when you shopped and where you were, invading garbage seems pretty invasive.

I come down in favor of police sifting through your garbage - but only if they have a search warrant. Since the Willamette Week knew prosecutors and police and the local mayor thought it was OK to search through garbage without a warrant, the reporters there decided to brilliantly turn the tables.

They sifted through the trash left curbside by the prosecutor, police chief and the mayor. Abandoned property, right?

The police chief and especially the mayor were terribly displeased when the Willamette Week reporters fessed up to sifting through their trash. The local prosecutor had a better sense of humor about it.

The anger by the police chief and mayor seemed a little misplaced, because the reporters, judging from that week's trash, concluded that both officials seemed like fine, upstanding citizens. There was certainly more than a whiff of garbage, but no real whiff of scandal.

Here's how the paper wrote about the Police Chief's Mark Kroeker's reaction at the time:

"'This is very cheap,' he blurted out, frowning as we pointed out a receipt with his credit card number, a summary of his wife's investments, an email prepping the mayor about his job application to be police chief of Los Angeles, a well-chewed cigar stub, and a handwritten note scribbled in pencil on a napkin, so personal it made us cringe. We also drew his attention to a newsletter from the conservative political advocacy group Focus on the Family" addressed to Mr and Mrs. Mark Kroeker."

With that, the normally accessible and affable police chief abruptly ended the interview and complained to other media about the Willamette Week's invasion of privacy. The paper did not reveal what was in the personal note on the napkin, but it was nothing nefarious, such as an extra-marital affair or illicet activity.

The paper couldn't get to the mayor's garbage. The bin was up against her house, and the reporters would have trespassed if they'd gone on to her property to check it. But the recycling was curbside, so the reporters had a look.

The contents were mostly just newspapers, all mainstream and middle of the road and reputable.

Then-mayor Vera Katz was livid when she got wind of the recycling heist by the paper. She summoned the reporters, and the newspapers from the recycling bin to her office. She also ordered them to bring the name of the newspaper's lawyer.

The mayor's prepared statement read, in part, "I consider Willamette Week's actions in this matter to be potentially illegal and absolutely unscrupulous and reprehensible....I will consider all my legal options in response to these actions."

Funny, though. The mayor was fine with her police force digging through people's trash. What's the difference?

The local district attorney, possibly sensing a PR mess, didn't get too publicly excited about Willamette Week's dumpster diving. He only asked the reporters, "Do I have to pay for this week's garbage collection?"

However, the paper did detail the findings in the the DA's refuse bin. Again, nothing shady, but the reporters got a LOT of personal information about the guy.

Again, I know this story is 15 years old. But it's a master class for when government or police officials overreach.

I get it. Police have a job to do and we demand that they keep us safe while they conduct their often dangerous work. But it never hurts to keep them in check, though.

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