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

May 20, 1988|BETH ANN KRIER | 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."

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