by Scott Fulmer
The dirty secret of private investigation: Dumpster diving can yield the best intel.
The Utah Sleuth has the scoop on how to do it right.
Being a private investigator is about helping people find closure. Information is our main commodity. In a world seemingly dazzled by the latest proprietary databases and state-of-the-art electronic gadgets, a simple trash pull remains an often-overlooked resource.
Before you head out the door, make sure you’re familiar with the law. I am not a lawyer, and this article should not be construed as legal advice. Having said that, you should be aware of local regulations that prohibit trash pulls.
In the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case of California v. Greenwood (486 U.S. 35), the court held 6 to 2 that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit a search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home.
In this case, the police believed Mr. Billy Greenwood was dealing narcotics from his home but lacked evidence to obtain a warrant. The police then searched Greenwood’s trash at the curb and discovered drugs. This gave them probable cause to obtain a warrant. With the items in the trash and at the curb, Greenwood no longer had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Several municipalities have passed regulations restricting dumpster diving. Subdivisions, apartment complexes, and home owner associations also post notices prohibiting rummaging through garbage. I am not sure such notices carry the force of law. Consult an attorney beforehand if you have questions.
Your primary concern should be trespassing. When conducting a trash pull at a residence, restrict your movements to grabbing trash around the curtilage of the home—in other words, at the curb or in an alley behind the residence. It is unlawful to walk onto the property and grab trash on the side of the home or next to the garage.
With apartment complexes and commercial businesses, dumpsters are in common areas. You may find a gated community or a company dumpster behind a locked fence to be problematic, especially if accompanied by a “no trespassing” sign.
Avail yourself of a careful pre-surveillance of the subject’s residence. First, determine when regular trash pick-up occurs. A call to the city or vendor handling trash collection will suffice. Scout out the subject’s location during daylight hours. Acquaint yourself with the placement of security cameras, exterior lights, nosy neighbors, busy streets, bus stops, busy commercial establishments, dead-end roads, and where the trash is left out for collection.
Determine whether or not the dumpsters are locked. Many front-end dumpsters use gravity locks. These locks only open when the dumpster is lifted up by a sanitation vehicle. More often than not, I’ve found these types of locks broken, allowing access. Many front-end dumpsters also have sliding doors on the sides.
In terms of equipment for your trash-pull go bag, you’ll find the following items useful:
- Gloves – Latex or vinyl gloves work fine. If you target a business that sells food, wear work gloves to avoid cutting yourself on cans or broken glass.
- Old Clothes and Shoes – Wear clothing you don’t mind getting dirty. Long-sleeve mechanic overalls do the trick. Remove all jewelry.
- Trash Bags – On a recent trash pull, I discovered much of the trash remained un-bagged, having been dumped from a can directly into the dumpster. Bring your own trash bags just in case.
- Step Ladder – If your target lives in an apartment complex or is a business, you’ll be dealing with a dumpster. If you’re vertically challenged (as I am), bring a short step ladder with you to both get in and get out of the dumpster.
- Flashlight – Bring a small headlamp, as it allows you to have both hands free.
- Groundsheet – Place trash you collect on a tarp or groundsheet in your vehicle. You don’t want to wake up the next day and discover trash has leaked all over your car. The same tarp can be used to lay out the trash in your garage for documentation.
- Anti-Bacterial Hand Sanitizer – Even if you’ve been wearing gloves, you’ll want to wash your hands afterwards.
- A Pretext – Prepare a story ahead of time. Residential trash pulls are quick snatch and grabs. Commercial businesses and apartment complexes may require you to spend time inside the dumpster, maximizing your exposure.
- Digital Camera – Evidence you find may end up in court. Each item should be photographed for chain of custody.
- Black Sharpie and Paper/Plastic Bags – Be sure to label, document and preserve each item.
- Chain of Custody Evidence Form – Log all items on a chain of custody form.
The best time to grab the trash depends on when it’s out for collection. For residential trash, the early morning hours on the day of collection are ideal. A simple early morning drive-by works. For businesses, you’ll want to conduct your trash pull very late at night or early in the morning. Trash pulls conducted after long weekends or holidays will yield the best haul. Remain vigilant. Listen for the police. Watch out for rats, raccoons or other scavengers.
After grabbing the trash, you’ll need to preserve any evidence you find and document the chain of custody. This means labeling and photographing each item.
Finally, you may think a trash pull is beneath you or not worth your time. Think again. I recently helped a major retailer prove one of their franchisees was violating the franchise agreement, based on evidence found during a trash pull. I also learned that a worker’s compensation claimant was spending the day at an amusement park after a trash pull. I bought a ticket and spent my day videotaping her riding every roller coaster in the park.
Trash pulls are like surveillance. Sometimes they yield results, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, these tips should help you be more successful.
About the author:
Scott Fulmer is a private investigator, author, speaker and owner of Fulmer, P.I., a private investigation firm in Salt Lake City. His love of mysteries began at the age of eight when he discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the school library. Scott’s many articles, blogposts and podcasts about the PI industry became the basis for his first book, Confessions of a Private Eye. He is also the host of the popular Fulmer, P.I. Podcast, available on iTunes.
Scott has a degree in criminal justice from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He enjoys reading, traveling and watching “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” He resides somewhere along the Wasatch Front near Salt Lake City with his wife Valerie, also a licensed private investigator. He is available for media appearances and to speak to your group, seminar or conference. For media inquiries please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.