Littering in the United States is a serious environmental problem. In many states, littering is a criminal offense punishable with a fine.
To curb littering, laws and enforcement actions are used. Epstein and Hammett from the United States Department of Justice, who are researchers on littering, state that all three forms part of a comprehensive response to environmental violators. In all 50 United States, littering and dumping laws are more important than municipal ordinances when it comes to controlling violations. They act as aesthetic and public safety measures, and not aesthetic ones. These laws are similar from one state to the next. They define who the violators of the law are, what type of “function” they have, and what items can be dumped or littered in order to make it illegal. For a person to be considered “in violation” of a state or municipal ordinance, they must have “human actions” in illegal littering and dumping. Most states require that witnesses the illegal act be acknowledged by law enforcement officers. In order to combat illegal littering and dumping, both prosecutions and penalties are essential.
In the United States, a significant amount of litter on roads is being blamed on poorly tarped vehicles (open-bed vehicles) and trash and recycling collection vehicles that were not properly secured.
A survey of US prosecutors found that the most important factors in prosecuting an offense were the “degree” and “criminal intent” by the offender. The most serious littering offenses in America are those involving illegal hazardous waste disposal. The “most common strategy governments use in order to curb environmental behavior” is to use both criminal and civil fines. Most offenders are able to settle without going to court. A monetary penalty, community service or a time limit for small littering offenses are the most common punishments. A littering or dumping conviction does not usually result in a sentence of imprisonment.
California’s punishment for littering is, for example, a $250 minimum fine and eight hours of litter cleanup. The maximum penalty for a defendant’s third offense is a $3,000 fine, along with 24 hours of litter cleaning (per offense). These penalties are frequently prominently displayed on roadside signs.
The Comprehensive Litter Prevention and Abatement Act of Idaho was passed in 2006. Litterers could be fined upto $180 with a subcharge of US$80, and ordered to clean up littered areas in their community.
Washington State can impose a $500 fine for littering cigarettes (especially lit). In the summer, wildfires are often started by dry conditions, tinder-dry forests, and lit or smoldering materials. According to state litter surveys, an average 352 pounds of litter was picked up per mile of highway. This includes about 3,000 cigarettes butts. Some 350 accidents involving litter and road debris were reported in 2002.
Throwing a lighted tobacco product or cigarette is a Class B Misdemeanor in Oregon. It can lead to a $2,500 fine and five years imprisonment. This is in addition the Class B misdemeanor of “placing offensive substance in waters, highways, or other property”, which carries a maximum penalty of $6,250 as well as a 10 year sentence.
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