After George spots an eclair in the garbage bin at Mrs. Enright’s home (his girlfriend, Lindsay’s, mother), he reaches into the trash can to enjoy the baked delight. Bum status notwithstanding, was George within his legal rights to take the eclair out of the trash? Who actually owns the garbage?
Trash is considered abandoned property. Case law from the California Court of Appeals, as well as the Indiana Court of Appeals both attest to the fact that once garbage “is placed in trash bags, and those trash bags are placed in an unlocked dumpster on the curtilage and readily accessible to others, that trash has been abandoned.” Essentially, trash is trash. Once it’s in the can and put outside where anyone can access it, then it is going to be considered abandoned property and anyone can take the refuse. However, if the trash-creator took some steps to demonstrate that he or she still wished to retain ownership of the trash, such as by keeping it in the house or keeping the doily on, then even if it’s in the cylinder it still won’t be considered abandoned property. A trash can in the house will still be private property, even though it’s final destination is for the dump.
So is George within his legal rights to act like a bum? The question really centers on whether Lindsay’s aunt abandoned her rights to the eclair when she put it into the trash. On the one hand, the eclair is in the cylinder and could therefore be considered abandoned property by her. On the other hand, it was both (1) above the rim and (2) the garbage can itself is still in the home and could therefore be considered private property.
Ultimately though, the eclair should be considered abandoned property. Although technically yes the garbage is still in the home, within the context of the party the eclair had certainly been abandoned by Lindsay’s aunt. As Jerry astutely points out, once something goes into the trash, it’s supposed to stay there. So it’s safe to assume that when Lindsay’s aunt dropped the eclair into the trash, she not only relinquished her rights to it, she intended for it stay in the trash. George, therefore, was perfectly in his right to take the eclair out of the trash and eat it, society notwithstanding, since it was abandoned property.
One thing to consider is whether the factors that determine abandoned property are subjective or objective. For instance, George claims his family eats out of the garbage all the time. If that were to be his case, then just because something is put in the garbage doesn’t mean that the Costanza’s are abandoning the property. On the other hand, since such behavior clearly objectively crosses the line from man to bum, it’s very possible that a court would rule that even if it was hovering like an angel above the rest of the garbage, it’s still abandoned property.
The key factor in garbage law is whether the property has been abandoned. If it has been, then it’s free for anyone to take, so long as it’s not done by trespassing onto private property. Here, Lindsay’s aunt clearly abandoned the eclair when she put it in the garbage. George was legally free to take it as his own, no matter who else had taken a bite before.