Flicking a cigarette out a car window can lead to serious jail time.
That’s one of the messages heard during a litter law forum organized by Keep Blount Beautiful and held at Ruby Tuesday Lodge Thursday, March 4. Judge Larry Potter of Shelby County, the father of environmental courts in Tennessee, and Campbell County Sheriff’s Office litter officer Glennis Monday were featured speakers.
The topic of the day was litter and how new incremental state litter laws are not only cleaning up trash off roadsides, but they are also helping to clear up crime in communities. “We need to think of litter in a new way,” Potter said. “We need to think of litter as probable cause.”
Campbell County litter officer Glennis Monday said that’s a message he preaches to his fellow officers. “I tell patrol officers if someone throws a cigarette butt out, it’s probable cause to pull them over and check them for DUI and other violations,” he said.
Potter said while officers realized they could use litter and blight as probable cause to search a property they suspected of being a methamphetamine lab, the $500 fine for anything from a cigarette butt to a dumped vehicle didn’t seem equitable, and often they were hesitant to charge the offender.
“Officers didn’t want to give a $500 ticket for someone throwing a McDonald’s bag out of a car window unless the motorist violated the ‘yap’ law by running their mouth,” he said as the audience laughed. “Consequently, litter laws were not being utilized. It was a $500 fine whether you threw out a bag or 1,000 pounds of stuff. We felt there was an inequity.”
Potter explained the new laws as follows:
Section 39-14-503: Mitigated Criminal Littering is less than 5 pounds of trash. The punishment is a $50 mail-in ticket, and it is a Class C misdemeanor.
“It’s not as big as it could be, but it is a violation,” Potter said.
Potter said it is this violation – flicking a cigarette butt out a car window, which can lead to a traffic stop in which a driver is sometimes found to be under the influence or possibly has a warrant for his or her arrest. “It’s probably the cigarette butt that opens up the door to so many other violations of the law,” he said. “Officers are beginning to see many (littering) citations lead to drug arrests.”
Section 39-14-504: Criminal Littering is 5 to 10 pounds of litter, and this is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and six month jail sentence and 80 hours of community service.
“The price to dance goes up here,” he said. “Often times the people I see in court are littering much more than 5 to 10 pounds.”
Section 39-14-505/6: Aggravated Criminal Littering is 10 pounds or more of litter, and this is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by 100 hours of community service, a $2,500 fine and 11 months, 29 days in jail.
The judge said litter can also have an impact on quality of life and even on industrial and commercial development. He shared a story of a county in the Memphis area that recruited a company to build a site in their county. As the recruiters drove the company officials past the county line, they started seeing large amounts of litter en route to the proposed plant site.
“Five miles in, the company officials said, ‘You can turn around. If you don’t care more about your county than this, we’re not putting our plant here,’” Potter said. “There is a correlation between economic development and litter. There is a correlation between crime and litter.”
Potter showed a picture of himself holding his grandson. “This is why I am doing what I am doing and why I’ve done it for 28 years. I believe we have a duty to our children and those who come after us to hand them something better than what we received from our parents,” he said. “I know how hard we all work, but there is a great deal of apathy about littering, and we have to make them care.”
The judge said people also have a responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth. “From a theological standpoint, taking care of the Earth is Biblical and mandated. I believe we all have an obligation,” he said.
Blount County General Sessions Judge Bill Brewer said there has been a change in perception about litter laws in the past few years. “Obviously you can drive up and down the roads and see there is obviously a problem to address. When cases are brought to us, we’ll address them.
The judge related an incident where a cigarette thrown out led to a more substantial charge.
“We had a person who flicked a cigarette out, and officers ended up charging him with resisting arrest. That led to them finding marijuana in the vehicle,” Brewer said. “They didn’t have an opportunity to stop him except he did litter.”
Monday said he has been on the job since 1998 and his main focus is enforcing litter laws. Monday said shortly after he started making arrests for littering, one of the judges whose court he was often in rode with him to see how bad the litter problem was. After that ride-along, Monday said the judge raised the fine for littering from $25 to $250.
Progress has been made as volunteers and other organizations have helped to clean up roads and make the area prettier, the officer said.
“In 1998 we had 733 dump sites,” Monday said. “I have seven left now, and I’m very proud of that.” Monday said the General Sessions judge in his county also made a statement regarding punishment. “If a person threw a beer bottle into someone’s front yard and got caught, they had to spend 14 hours picking up trash on that person’s road,” he said.
Monday said it is important to get into schools and educate youngsters on the importance of not littering. “The way to stop littering in Tennessee is to get them young and get into their mindset,” he said. “Then the kids will have the mindset that they want to see the county clean.”