It's Clearly in the Bag

A local government can require residents to dispose of their trash in clear bags without offending anyone's constitutional right to privacy, according to a ruling by a New York State appeals court. [Dobrzenski v. Village of Hamburg, No. 00-00581, N.Y. App. Div., Nov. 13, 2000]

In 1998, officials in the community of Hamburg, located about 20 miles south of Buffalo, N.Y., suspected that a significant percentage of local residents were not complying with the village code provisions that mandate recycling and prohibit the commingling of recyclables with other waste left for collection. The village conducted a study that, sure enough, confirmed their hunch.

In April 1999, the village amended its Municipal Solid Waste Law to allow its collection crews to decline pickup of any garbage left at curbside in nontransparent bags. The objective, of course, was to force residents to use clear bags, thus enabling solid waste workers to inspect the contents without tearing open the bags. A number of residents flatly refused to heed the clear-bag rule, and continued to place their trash at the curb in ordinary opaque bags. These individuals soon learned that the village was serious about enforcing the new rule: Their uncollected garbage bags simply accumulated in front of their houses.

The battle began when John C. Dobrzenski, who had a mound of uncollected garbage in nonconforming bags at his curb, individually filed suit against the village in a local court, alleging that the clear-bag requirement violated his right to privacy. The magistrate ruled against him.

Undaunted, he convinced 13 other residents to join him in taking his claim up the judicial ladder to the Erie County Supreme Court. There, Justice Frank A. Sedita Jr. declared the 1999 village code amendment an unconstitutional exercise of the police power that violated the plaintiffs' right to privacy.

"Our clients throw away things they don't want everyone else to see," a lawyer for the protesters told a reporter after Justice Sedita handed down his ruling. "They are not opposed to recycling."

Members of the Hamburg village board, as well as officials from neighboring communities, were concerned about the potential effect of the decision on recycling efforts. The village refused to let the ruling go unchallenged, and sought a review by the Appellate Division of the state court system.

After considering arguments by the citizens and local officials, a four-member appeals panel unanimously reversed the ruling by the Erie County court and granted a judgment in favor of the village, declaring the 1999 amendment a "constitutional exercise of the police power."

"Clear bags enable the Village to monitor compliance with the Municipal Solid Waste Law without the necessity of ripping open garbage bags to inspect their contents," the appellate opinion said. "We conclude that the amendment ... bears a reasonable relation to the public good," that is, the legislature's desire for localities to assure that recyclable materials be separated from "solid waste ... left for collection."