Motorists may want to think twice about throwing that empty coffee cup out the window while traveling along a Pennsylvania roadway if legislation that passed the state House of Representatives on Wednesday becomes law.
What’s happening: House Bill 95, which passed by a 122-79 bipartisan vote, raises the maximum penalties for individuals convicted of littering as well as garbage collection businesses.
A summary offense for a first conviction for an individual carries a fine of up to $2,000 (currently the maximum is $300) and a requirement of spending between five and 30 hours picking up trash and/or up to a year’s imprisonment. Any subsequent convictions are upgraded to a third-degree misdemeanor carrying up to a $5,000 fine (currently $1,000) and could result in between 30 and 100 hours on litter pick-up duty or prison time.
As for owners or operators of trash collection vehicles who knowingly allow their load to end up on the road or waterway, the current $5,000 maximum fine would double to $10,000 for a first conviction and up to $20,000 for subsequent convictions.
Revenue generated from fines is to be distributed to counties where the violation took place.
Driving the change: Litter along roadways is an issue that has been raised by lawmakers over the years. At a recent legislative hearing PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll acknowledged litter is an eyesore and a priority concern for himself.
Last month, Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful reports volunteers picked up more than 29,000 pounds of litter from parks, trails and communities along the Susquehanna River over a two-week period.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, further points to a litter research study issued by the state Departments of Environmental Protection and Transportation, in partnership with Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, that found collectively nine Pennsylvania cities, including Harrisburg, spent more than $68.5 million managing littering and illegal dumping.
What people say: Bullock says the current littering penalties are too low. Making them stiffer might deter illegal dumpers from dumping in the North Philadelphia neighborhoods she represents.
“Some of these offending companies treat fines for illegally dumping trash as the cost of doing business. We cannot allow that to continue to be the case,” Bullock said in a statement. “More than just being an eyesore, illegal dumping does long term damage to the environment and health of community ecosystems and costs taxpayers money with the strain it puts on municipalities.”
Several Republicans indicated they felt the proposed penalties were too high and unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to lessen them.
“No one wants to see Pennsylvania’s beautiful communities and all the nature it has to offer littered with trash. We have all been frustrated when we see someone toss trash out their car window,” said Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland County, who failed in her effort to win passage of an amendment to lower the maximum jail sentence for a first time offender to 48 hours instead of the proposed 90 days.
“The idea of putting someone in jail for three months (the original bill had up to a year in jail) for littering is absurd and expensive,” she said. “The punishment should fit the crime, and this simply isn’t the case with House Bill 95.”
Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga County, on the other hand, proposed increasing the penalty for the first offense to a misdemeanor if the littering involved drug paraphernalia. He too was unsuccessful in getting enough votes to pass that idea. Democrats pointed out the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is supportive of Bullock’s bill and the penalties it proposed.
A study released in January by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and Palmetto Pride that looked at the efficacy of state litter laws in the commonwealth and South Carolina found enforcement is key to stopping littering and illegal dumping but that not enough of it was being done. It also found officers and judges do not favor high fines but do consider making community service requirements to be effective.
PennDOT is reviewing the legislation along with other measures to address littering in Pennsylvania, said department spokeswoman Alexis Campbell.
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