Illegal dumping has become an increasingly large problem throughout the United States. Offenders often dump late at night to avoid the cost and inconvenience of proper waste disposal. Because the dumping of garbage, household appliances, abandoned automobiles, construction and demolition debris, hazardous materials, and other waste endangers public health, states have enacted a variety of laws designed to address the problem. These laws can be tough.
The definition of illegal dumping varies by state, but usually involves one of the following scenarios:
The federal government has also passed multiple laws designed to protect the environment. These federal laws, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, have complex permitting requirements and typically apply to large volumes of hazardous waste.
States often distinguish between littering and illegal dumping. The difference is determined by the type and volume of waste. For example, improperly disposing of a small amount of typical household garbage, such as throwing an empty beverage bottle onto the side of the road, is littering.
On the other hand, dumping a larger volume of household waste, such as bags full of garbage or an old refrigerator, would constitute illegal dumping. State laws differ on the volume of household garbage required to constitute dumping, but the amount may be as little as that which fills a garbage can.
The type of waste is also relevant. Illegally disposing of a toxic chemical or hazardous item such as a car battery may constitute dumping, even though the volume or size of the waste material is relatively small.
Illegal dumping can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the state and on a number of other factors, such as:
Dumping either hazardous or large quantities of waste, or being a repeat offender, are factors that make felony charges more likely.
Prosecutors can file charges against individuals and companies that violate illegal dumping laws. In some instances, the law allows prosecution of a company’s executives and managers if they should have known about the illegal dumping, even if they did not have actual knowledge of the violation.
There are fewer defenses to environmental crimes like illegal dumping than there are to many other criminal offenses. In fact, many states adopt, or come close to adopting, a “strict liability” approach. This means that unlike most crimes, which require the prosecutor to show that the defendant intended to break the law or do the act that constitutes the crime, someone charged with illegal dumping can be found guilty regardless of his state of mind. The prosecutor need only prove that the defendant committed the prohibited activity. However, a few defenses that have succeeded are discussed below.
When small governmental bodies like cities or counties adopt regulations, they must correctly follow complicated state procedures. If the adopting governmental body makes a mistake in following the procedure, the regulations they pass may be invalid.
Sometimes a governmental representative gives incorrect advice to a person who asks about permissible disposal methods. For example, a county or city employee may incorrectly tell someone that a permit is not needed to dump certain materials. If a defendant follows the advice in good faith, this reliance on the government official may be recognized as a defense.
While lack of knowledge of the permitting process is not a defense in most situations, a defendant’s ability to demonstrate to the prosecutor a good faith intention to comply with dumping laws can go a long way toward having the charges and penalties reduced. Learn how to protect yourself when Facing Criminal Charges.
Someone convicted of illegal dumping can be subjected to any or all of the following penalties:
If you are facing a charge of illegal dumping, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney who regularly practices in your area. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution’s case against you and help develop any defenses you might have. For example, if you believe that you properly relied on a governmental authority, you’ll need to know whether your state recognizes this defense, as explained above.
A lawyer’s skillful negotiation with the prosecutor can sometimes result in a reduction of felony illegal dumping charges to misdemeanor charges, and can result in lower fines. A local criminal defense attorney, who knows how the prosecutors and judges involved in your case typically handle such cases, can assist with these negotiations. And if you decide to go to trial, having a good lawyer in your corner will be essential.