No Privacy In Trash, Supreme Court Holds

Even when it's sitting on your property awaiting

collection, garbage - and the private information it contains - may

be vulnerable to police and public scrutiny

R. v. Patrick

Supreme Court of Canada, 2009 SCC 17 (April 9,


This Supreme Court of Canada ruling, which arose in the context of a

criminal drug prosecution, underscores the importance of careful

disposal of documents containing confidential information or other

information that could potentially be embarrassing or damaging to

your company's interests. The essence of the Court's ruling

is that waste left for disposal "at the curb" - and the

information it contains - is fair game for police search and

seizure, and arguably for perusal by reporters or members of the

general public as well. Even where trash is left for pick up on

your own private property, it can be vulnerable if it can easily be

reached from public property. The lesson is never to dispose of

sensitive material by leaving it for pick-up on the periphery of

one's property. Lockable bins, fencing, signage and other

indicia of an intention to maintain control of refuse until it can

be securely transferred into disposal vehicles are key to keeping

your trash out of the hands of those who would recycle it into a

gold mine of information about your business.


The appellant had been charged with drug offences after the

Calgary police, in the course of an investigation, opened garbage

bags he had left for collection in an uncovered curbside bin and

examined their contents. These allegedly included residue of

illegal drugs as well as other items that were obviously related to

the ecstasy lab that the appellant was subsequently convicted of

running from his house. Throughout the proceedings in the lower

courts, the appellant's counsel focused on the

constitutionality of the warrantless search and seizure of the

garbage bags, which were on the appellant's property when the

police reached over the lot line and took them. The Alberta Court

of Appeal held, over a strong dissent by Madam Justice Conrad, that

the appellant had relinquished control over the items in the bags

and, by implication, had no expectation that they would remain

private. It also held that the items were not the sort of thing to

which s. 8 privacy rights extend (this aspect of the ruling was

rejected by the Supreme Court, which recognized the potential

informational value of almost any form of waste and stated that the

fact that material has been...

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