Illegal Dumping: Laws & Penalties

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.

By , Attorney · Georgia State University College of Law

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.

What Is Illegal Dumping?

The definition of illegal dumping varies by state, but usually involves one of the following scenarios:

  • dumping waste on public or private property that is not licensed or permitted to receive waste
  • dumping waste, without a license or permit, into sewers or waterways, or
  • allowing another to dump waste on one's land, without being licensed to receive such waste.

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.

Is There a Difference Between "Littering" and Illegal Dumping?

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.

Is Illegal Dumping a Misdemeanor or a Felony?

Illegal dumping can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the state and on a number of other factors, such as:

  • the amount of waste
  • the type of waste, and whether it is hazardous
  • whether the dumping is committed by an individual or a business, and
  • whether the defendant has committed prior offenses.

Dumping either hazardous or large quantities of waste, or being a repeat offender, are factors that make felony charges more likely.

Who Can Be Prosecuted?

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.

Defenses to Illegal Dumping

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.

Invalid dumping regulations

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.

Justifiable reliance

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.

Is lack of knowledge 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.

Penalties and Fines for Illegal Dumping

Someone convicted of illegal dumping can be subjected to any or all of the following penalties:

  • Incarceration. For misdemeanors, sentences may involve 12 months or less in the county jail or state prison, depending on the state. For felonies, the sentence can be one or more years. The judge may require that the entire sentence be served in jail.
  • Fines. Courts impose fines to penalize defendants. These fines vary greatly, depending on the circumstances. For misdemeanors, the fine may be as little as for a traffic ticket, but for felonies can be thousands of dollars. Some fines can accrue daily until the illegally dumped waste is cleaned up.
  • Probation. A person on probation regularly meets with a probation officer and fulfills other terms and conditions, such as maintaining employment and attending counseling.
  • Community service. Courts often include as a part of probation the requirement that the defendant work for a specified number of hours with court-approved organizations, such as charities.
  • Restitution. Courts often require defendants to pay for any damage they caused to someone's property by their illegal dumping.
  • Remediation. Courts may require defendants to clean up and repair property damaged by their illegal dumping.

See a Lawyer

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.

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