Punishing the Non-Guilty

February 7, 2006 at 6:35pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in 625 Elm Street

Punishing individuals for crimes they did not commit is ridiculous, right? Not according to the City of Lincoln, which is pondering doing just that with a new littering ordinance. Lincolnites ought to be just as fired up over this threat to their rights as they were fired up over the threat to their property during the infamous Samurai Sam’s vs. John Q. Hammonds hotel battle last year.

The proposed ordinance deals with illegally posted handbills and fliers related to upcoming events. It would punish not only the persons responsible for posting the fliers, but also the owner of the establishment at which the event will occur. That means if Jammin’ Joe Smith litters while advertising his upcoming concert at Knickerbockers, both he and Knickerbockers are punished, even if Knickerbockers had nothing to do with the crime.

At first blush it’s easy to have sympathy with the City on this one. The litter created by illegal fliers is an eyesore, it lowers property values, and so on. It’s nearly impossible to catch the deed-doers in the act, so they go unpunished. But we have to punish somebody, right? Wrong. A society that punishes the innocent merely for punishment’s sake is a brutal, uncivil, and unconscionable society. If we accept “guilt by association” alone as sufficient grounds for taking punitive action, none of us is safe from prosecution for a host of crimes.

Let’s address this problem in a sane, ethical way, rather than taking the lazy way out. There are plenty of creative solutions available to us that don’t require criminalizing the innocent.

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The Comments

MIchael February 7, 2006 at 8:28pm

According the the Lincoln Municipal Code, we’re already responsible for the actions of others: property owners are required to keep their premises free of litter, regardless of who put it there, and can be punished by a fine up to $100 and/or up to six months in jail if found to be in violation.

I’m not sure about the equation of illegally posted flyers and handbills with litter, but I think you raise an interesting question. Is there a sane and ethical way to encourage owners to keep their property clean if this kind of law is not sane or ethical?

Mr. Wilson February 7, 2006 at 10:21pm

I see where you’re going with this, Michael, but be aware that, if you’ll pardon my use of an overused saying, you’re mixing apples and oranges.

The ordinance you refer to isn’t punishing a property owner for the act of littering. Rather, he is being punished for the unkempt state of his property. In addition, a violation of the ordinance you cite would typically require a threesome of quality, quantity, and duration violations. In any event, in the logic of the ordinance it’s not somebody else’s act the property owner is being punished for, but his own. (Or rather, his inaction.)

That’s not to defend or dispute the logic of the ordinance. I’m just identifying what I believe is the distinction between the current ordinance you cited, and the proposed ordinance.

With that in mind, now to your question. I do think it is both sane and ethical, in principle, for a community to establish reasonable standards of quality which property must meet. I believe there must be a balance between my right to maintain my property (or not) as I please, and your rights to maximize your property’s value and to live in a healthy environment. If I lived in the middle of nowhere I could do pretty much whatever I wanted; but since I’ve chosen to live in a city, I have opted to give up a small piece of my property rights in order to be provided with the benefits of living in a civil community. Them’s the tradeoffs.

But again I want to stress that such ordinances are fine in principle. As enacted and enforced around the country, many of these sorts of ordinances go way too far.

Plain Patriot February 8, 2006 at 5:53am

To go back briefly to the apples and organges debate, the current city ordinance to punish property owners for unkempt premises seems fairly reasonable.  While, you may not have created the mess, in the interest of a clean, safe and litter free environment we put the onus on the property owner.  Why not make the adjacent property owner responsible for keeping the light poles around their buildings clean.  Afterall, as is the case with homeowner’s they have the greatest vested interest in doing so.

Mr. Wilson February 8, 2006 at 1:32pm

Why not make the adjacent property owner responsible for keeping the light poles around their buildings clean.

That’s not exactly what the proposed ordinance wants to do, Patriot. It’s not designed to punish those in the proximity of the posted fliers; rather, it’s designed to punish those whose names appear on the flier, wherever the fliers may be (illegally) posted. It is not unlike punishing U-Stop for littering if one of its plastic cups is found on the street, merely because U-Stop’s name is written on the side.

Maybe you knew that, but the quoted sentence made it unclear.

Barbara February 10, 2006 at 4:34am

I find it amusing that the City Council is proposing this new ‘litter law,’ considering there is no enforcement of current litter laws in this city. 

Has anyone else noticed how littered Lincoln has become? Commercial property owners are the worst, it seems. Check out the easement areas and parking lot around Best Buy next time you’re there. Check out the easements around other businesses as you pass by - especially along 27th and 48th (both north and south).

Look also at the shrubbery in landscaped medians; what do you see there? Who is responsible for keeping that picked up? The city Ombudsman can’t answer that question. The Health Department just makes sympathetic, and yet noncommital, noises.

“There ought to be a law” apparently isn’t a good solution - and this proposed one is ridiculous.

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