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Litterbug on the loose

Man, those no littering signs that read “fine and prison” must not be all for show.

Of course, the littering alleged in State v. Rankin was a little more problematic, perhaps, than throwing a cigarette butt out of your car window. (Do not throw cigarette butts out of your car window, please and thank you.)

Defendant Angela Rankin was sentenced to up to 15 months in prison for, among other things, felony littering.

With big plans of stealing someone’s home heating oil tank to sell for scrap metal, Rankin first needed to dump the heavy fuel inside. So, she emptied the petro near the residential driveway where the tank sat and made her getaway. The police were notified of the larceny, and Guilford County’s public health division learned that the fuel dump impacted a waterway, soil, and a roadway. The hazardous nature of the oil led to the felony littering charge.

After her conviction, Rankin’s sentence was suspended to 18 months of supervised probation. On appeal, she argued that her indictment wasn’t facially valid because it did not contain an essential element of the alleged crime: that litter was placed “where it ought not be.”

According to state law (§ 14-399(a)(1) and (a)(2), trash disposal — if on public property or private property not owned by the individual — is illegal only when it’s put somewhere other than a waste receptacle or a trash dump. You can’t throw trash in rivers, campgrounds, alleys, or trailer parks, the statute declares. And not beside someone else’s driveway.

In part, the indictment accused Rankin of disposing of hazardous waste on city property and not in a litter receptacle. It failed to allege, as it should have, that her littering didn’t take place on property designated for garbage disposal (e.g. a city dump).

Finding that one of the crime’s essential elements is absent, the Court of Appeals vacated the defective indictment. Otherwise, to hold that the applicable law intends for trash cans and dumps to be mere exceptions to the litter law rather than essential elements of it, would lead to absurd results, the court ruled, such as making criminals of the unwitting individuals who throw broken rubber bands into courthouse trash cans, or who toss used coffee cups into wastebins at the mall.

Well, that seems to make sense. A lot more sense than polluting the ground for some scrap metal or being the butthead who flicks cigarette remnants all about the planet.

So, the takeaway for those typing up the indictments is, if you want to punish the litterbugs, allege everything.

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