To catch a litterbug

Thursday, March 24, 2005
Trash lays on the ground by a warning sign against litter along William Street in Cape Girardeau.

It flies down streets and across yards. It accumulates in ditches. It builds up along street curbs like lint in the dryer. Everybody knows litter is there, but why doesn't somebody do something about it?

Southeast Missouri police departments say they are doing all they can, but they could use some help.

"People like to tell us they don't want to get involved," said Cape Girardeau police spokesman Jason Selzer. "But it requires getting involved. We need for the judge and prosecutor to have enough evidence."

Scott City police Lt. David Leeman said unless officers see someone dumping trash, they can't enforce litter ordinances. What they need, but don't get much, are witnesses who are willing to write a statement, sign a complaint and follow through.

"Most don't want to get involved," Leeman said. "They don't want to have to go to court and testify."

Jackson nuisance abatement officer James Barker agrees. "We have to have a complaint," he said. "Someone who saw them do it and is able to recognize them. When we're patrolling we can stop and issue a ticket for it, but in any other case we have to have witnesses who have to be willing to sign a statement that we can send to the city prosecutor."

Barker said Jackson police want witnesses who can identify the person who did the littering. Scott City and Cape Girardeau officers say that may be difficult sometimes.

The driver who littered may not own the car, but state law now says the owner of the car can be ticketed for the offense, Selzer said. It will be up to the owner to straighten things out with the actual offender.

"Most people will say, 'Yes, it was me,' " Leeman said. "Or they will say, 'It was my son driving, and he knows better than that.' We definitely follow up on tips and information from the public. But they do have to sign their name to that statement. We have to screen them to a certain extent. We have a lot of the revenge factor, and it would be too easy to get people in trouble."

Police in Cape Girardeau, Scott City and Jackson say they will, and do, respond to all calls about littering. But unless the officers actually see someone flinging trash out the window or letting it blow from the bed of their pickup, they can't write a citation.

"We can still check it out," Selzer said. "But if the witness is not willing to sign a complaint, the other person is going to deny it and it's not going to be a case we will be able to prosecute."

Catching people who litter, while important, is not always a high priority for busy police officers. But when they have the time on their patrols, they say they look out for offenders.

"I drive down the street and I see all this litter," Leeman said. "How did it get there? I never catch them."

Counting citations

Despite all the litter covering the ground, very few tickets are written. During 2004 in Scott City, Leeman said, only 10 tickets were written. Nine were written in Jackson, Lt. Chris Mouser said.

In Cape Girardeau, 75 tickets for trash were written in 2003, Selzer said. But those included tickets for private property littering, which are easier to make a case for because it's possible to track large amounts of trash in the yard to the resident. In 2004, he said, 29 tickets were written, and so far this year 11 tickets have been issued.

Recently, Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson struck a responsive chord with the community when he announced that city prisoners were picking up trash on city streets.

While that may give residents a feeling of satisfaction, it isn't always possible to arrange, said patrolman Ty Metzger, a Cape Girardeau nuisance abatement officer. Not all city jail inmates qualify for the work release program that would allow them to go out and pick up trash. The prisoners also have to be supervised, he said, and that depends on having an officer available to watch them.

Leeman said Scott City also likes that approach. Some offenders, he said, can't afford to pay the fine for littering, and rather than sit in jail they are willing to work off their fine by picking up trash in the city. But because of regulations, he said, in the last five years the city has been able to do that no more than twice.

In other cases, though, communities establish a range of penalties for those convicted of littering. A judge decides what penalty to impose.

The agency writing the most tickets for littering is the Missouri Department of Conservation. Last year, according to a conservation spokesman in Jefferson City, the department's agents wrote 587 tickets for littering and 14 for dumping statewide. Regional supervisor Ken West of Cape Girardeau said for conservation agents, writing citations for littering is secondary, although it is important. The conservation department has found, he said, that littering and fishing seem to go together. While agents are looking for compliance in fishing regulations, if they see evidence of littering they write tickets and make sure the litter is removed.

Conservation agents are limited to policing state property, some federal land and the state's rivers and streams. If conservation agents see someone throwing a cup or other trash out the window off state or federal land, West said, they contact the closest law enforcement agency and give them as much information as they can.

"The main thing the public can do is provide accurate information, vehicle description, where it occurred, and what time it occurred, and a license plate number, anything that will tie back to the person who was there," West said.

335-6611, extension 160

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