People in Florida litter all of the time. You cannot drive more than a block around here without seeing trash that was discarded along the side of the road. Most people probably assume that the penalty for getting caught littering is a fine. There are signs along some roads which indicate what the fine is for littering, not that we have ever seen a police officer enforce them. Littering is a noncriminal violation that can only be punished with a fine if the amount of trash or debris is small. Under Florida law, if a person litters and the weight of the trash is no more than 15 pounds, the penalty is up to a $100 fine. However, as the weight or volume of the trash becomes greater, the violation is a criminal violation and the potential penalties become more serious.
At 15 to 500 pounds, littering becomes a first degree misdemeanor. This carries a penalty of up to 12 months in jail. No one is likely to go to jail in Florida for a misdemeanor littering charge, although it is theoretically possible, but the statute specifically mentions that the defendant must be ordered to do community service which would involve picking up trash. If the littering was done by throwing the trash out of a vehicle, three points are added to the defendant’s driving record with the DMV.
If the littering involves more than 500 pounds or 100 cubic feet in volume, it becomes a third degree felony. This crime carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison in Florida. Again, prison is unlikely for a felony littering charge, unless serious damage was done, but the statute specifically mentions penalties that the judge must impose. The defendant must remove the litter and repair or pay for any damages caused by it. The defendant must also perform community service to help restore the area affected or another area damaged by littering. The defendant must also pay three times the amount of damage caused by the littering to someone who was damaged as a result of the felony littering.
The statute specifically says it is the duty of all law enforcement officers to enforce these laws. That is fairly rare for a criminal statute. However, that is in there because the police rarely, if ever, enforce these laws. Apparently, trying to prevent people from turning our state into a public trash can and polluting our waters is less important than arresting people for smoking marijuana.
In any case, we have found our first case where someone was actually prosecuted for littering. And of course it involves a person who littered on his own property. In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant had been using his backyard to dump all sorts of vegetation, miscellaneous items and trash. The city ultimately got involved and told the defendant to clean his yard and cut down the excess vegetation. The defendant refused, and the city brought out a crew that cut many of his bushes and trees and removed the debris and much of the trash. He was then charged with felony littering and was convicted. He got probation and had to pay a fine and restitution for the city’s cleanup efforts.
The criminal defense lawyer appealed the conviction arguing that the city included overgrown trees and bushes as litter to get the weight above 500 pounds which made it a felony charge. Also, there was a question as to whether a person can be charged with littering when the alleged offense occurred on his own property. The court determined a person can commit the crime of littering on his/her own property if that littering becomes a public nuisance. So, if a person dumps enough litter on his/own property, it can be considered a public nuisance, and the state can get involved.
Also, the state argued that trees, branches, plant material and similar vegetation can be the subject of a littering charge. The statute includes building and construction material and wood, and the state argued that includes the kind of vegetation this defendant had on his property. The court disagreed with this point. The statute clearly refers to items that can be considered trash or rubbish. Living trees, bushes and plants are not what one would normally consider trash or litter. So, those items could not be included in the weight required to determine whether a littering violation is non-criminal, a misdemeanor or a felony.
However, the court ruled that there was enough evidence of non-living trash on the property that became a public nuisance to establish a felony charge of littering against the defendant so his conviction was upheld. The court made a point to criticize the state for using its resources to charge a person who had a bunch of junk on his own property with a felony. This does sound like the kind of government overreach we often see in criminal law. The state could have used its power to fine the defendant to deal with this problem and focus on prosecuting actual criminals. However, given how much trash accumulates along the roads in Florida, it would be nice if police officers actually enforced the non-criminal penalties when people throw their trash on the side of the road, as often as they do.