Throwing 3 cigarette butts onto the ground in Illinois could soon make you a felon

(Source: multisanti / Flickr)
(Source: multisanti / Flickr)
Potential felony in progress.  (Source: multisanti / Flickr)

ILLINOIS — Dropping cigarette butts out a car window could now result in felony charges in Illinois, according to an amendment to the state’s Litter Control Act, passed this month.  A 3-strike offender could receive years of imprisonment and tens of thousands of dollars in fines, plus living the scarlet letter of being a convicted felon, and all the freedom-restricting things that come along with that title.

Cigarette butts are certainly unsightly and its not difficult to understand why people would want to do something about them being thrown all over public and private property.  The trouble is determining what should be done about them.  Up until now, cigarette litter in Illinois was covered only by local ordinances, which could include fines or other minor penalties, depending on the location.  Arguably local ordinances are the best solution for dealing with such issues, but that wasn’t good enough for legislators in Illinois.  They wanted to change the definition of “litter” according to state law.

Sounds reasonable, right?

The trouble is that the state litter law has steep penalties that don’t seem to fit the crime in all cases.  Particularly for the most common form of litter in the world: cigarette butts.

The first conviction of the state’s litter law gets one a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail, and a fine of $1,500. A second conviction is a Class A misdemeanor with maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a fine of $2,500.

The 1st and 2nd strike offenses already offer punishments which exceed the penalties for dropping a cigarette butt in most parts of the country.  Typically the punishment for such litter would be a citation and a small fine.  The shocking 3rd strike penalty truly exemplifies why cigarettes don’t belong attached to this law.

(Source: Jimmy Akin)
A serial litterer serving 36 months for aggravated cigarette flicking. (Source: Jimmy Akin)

A third conviction for breaking the Litter Control Act brings a litterbug a Class 4 felony, punishable with a 1-3 year prison sentence and a fine of $25,000.

That’s the same classification of crime as Aggravated Assault and Stalking.

And after a 3-strike litterbug suffers his prison sentence and fines, he or she gets to live with the lifelong classification of convicted felon — a title that strips them of voting privileges, the right to own a gun, and the ability to easily get a job.

Researching the law, I discovered that other petty things are explicitly named in the Litter Control Act, such as grass clippings and garden waste.  So misplaced lawn refuse and a discarded newspaper could earn you a felony as well.  The exact definition of litter, as defined by the new law, is as follows:

“Litter” means any discarded, used or unconsumed substance or waste. “Litter” may include, but is not limited to, any garbage, trash, refuse, cigarettes, debris, rubbish, grass clippings or other lawn or garden waste, newspaper, magazines, glass, metal, plastic or paper containers or other packaging construction material, abandoned vehicle (as defined in the Illinois Vehicle Code), motor vehicle parts, furniture, oil, carcass of a dead animal, any nauseous or offensive matter of any kind, any object likely to injure any person or create a traffic hazard, potentially infectious medical waste as defined in Section 3.360 of the Environmental Protection Act, or anything else of an unsightly or unsanitary nature, which has been discarded, abandoned or otherwise disposed of improperly.

Illinois H.B. 3243 was signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn on August 16.  It will take effect on January 1st, 2014.

Lori Gummow, a litter lobbyist and executive director of Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful, said that she hopes cops diligently enforce the law.  She claims that litter promotes crime. “It’s the whole broken windows thing,” she explained.

The stiff penalties don’t bother Illinois law enforcers.  “If I’m driving down the street and I see someone do that (flick a butt out the window), I would take enforcement action,” Rockford Park District Police Sgt. John Piccolin told the Rockford Register Star.

Litter is a property rights issue and should not be ignored.  But it is an issue that would be better handled by local ordinances, rather than by powerful state laws with overly-broad definitions.  Litter laws need to be reformed… to fix the work of the reformers.

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