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  • Tuesday, June 24, 2008

    Hands Off My Treasure/Trash

    By Sean Ripple

    According to Supreme Court case California v. Greenwood (1988), curbside trash is considered public domain. Obviously, this is an oversimplification of the finding. Just as obvious a fact is that the judgment was made relative to a specific set of legal circumstances, which means that this finding should in no way be used as a broad-based judgment for the myriad issues related to privacy. Yet, as I understand it, this is exactly how law works. It functions as a sort of stopgap measure for a constellation of related issues, and until particular variants are offered up to the scrutiny of judge, jury, and lawyers, one judgment is meant to serve as precedent for all others within the given constellation; in other words, like you and me, the law generalizes as a means of problem solving. Sadly, generalizing can give rise to some fairly nasty forms of bigotry and hatred, and because what we are involved in is nothing less than a highly dynamic reality, generalizing can also work against the party employing the generalization. However, for the sake of mental stability and health, it is often necessary to generalize to stave off the overwhelming nature of potentiality.

    All this is meant to serve as a preface to an imagined legal argument that came to mind yesterday related to curbside trash that contains sensitive personal information, like credit card offers, which can potentially be used by identity thieves. The argument would go something like this (please forgive the fairly rudimentary legal speakā€¦ the extent of my legal speak vocabulary is limited to what I've heard on courtroom dramas):

    "Your honor, my client asserts that because the information used to obtain a credit card with a $10,000 limit was acquired by rummaging through curbside trash, which in accordance with the finding of California v. Greenwood is considered public domain, he has not committed a criminal act of identity theft, but has assumed this identity for financial gain legally. My client argues that it is the responsibility of the rightful owner of the identity to which the credit card offer was made to take necessary steps to properly dispose of personally sensitive information that has the potential to be used in a manner found to be undesirable by the rightful owner of the identity. Any failure to properly dispose of personally sensitive information, such as throwing said information away in the public domain that is curbside trash, makes the rightful owner of the identity negligent and legally responsible for any debt incurred in his/her name by another party."

    No doubt this is an absurd and primitive legal argument, which I can only hope would be struck down in the high courts of our law, but then again, I've heard that despite Good Samaritan laws, plaintiffs have won lawsuits where they sue defendants who broke their ribs while conducting CPR on them.

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