Jail Time for Lawn Mowing? When Environmental Laws Go Too Far…


This article is part of a series focusing on Lens of Liberty, a project of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

While it is true that we ought to take reasonable measures to minimize pollution and make the most of the earth’s natural resources, legislation designed to protect the environment oftentimes goes too far by sacrificing personal freedom in an attempt to satisfy environmental lobbyists.

In her Liberty Minute entitled “Mow the Lawn, Go to Jail,” Helen Krieble talks about one such law which threatens homeowners with jail time for simply mowing their own lawns:

If you trim the trees, mow the lawn, or rake the leaves on your own property, you could go to jail. That was the town council’s ruling in East Hampton, New York, in adopting “Vegetation Protection Legislation” designed to let nature take back much of the property. A portion of each lot was declared off limits to any clearing of plants or ground cover and violators could be fined or jailed.

One angry citizen looked through the lens of liberty and told the council, “You don’t have to read much English and American history to learn that the right to use your own property is where all our rights stem from.”

When I was young, you got in trouble if you didn’t mow the lawn. Now you go to jail if you do?

Criminalizing lawn mowing is one example of a law which, in the name of being “eco-friendly,” excessively interferes with citizens’ everyday activities. Krieble’s discussion also brings to mind another example of a proposed law which would impose harsh penalties on innocent citizens.

Ian Calderon, a California Assemblyman and the Democratic majority leader of the California state Assembly, has proposed a bill which would make it a criminal offence for waiters and waitresses to give their customers unsolicited one-time use plastic straws. The simple gesture could end up costing them up to $1,000 in fines and six months behind bars.

In a January 18 press release announcing his proposed bill, Calderon justified his action by emphasizing the impact that plastic straws have on the environment:

An estimated 500 million straws are used in the United States every day. This number is enough to fill over 127 school buses each day and is calculated to be about 1.6 straws per person in the U.S.

The numbers Calderon cited are questionable given that they come from a telephone survey conducted by a nine-year-old boy back in 2011. Regardless of whether or not these numbers are reliable estimates, however, no one should ever be locked behind bars for offering another person a straw.

After facing significant backlash, Calderon announced that he plans to amend the bill to remove the harsh penalties. Blaming the harsh criminal penalties on “a miscommunication,” he now claims, “They were never intended to be in the bill.”

Hopefully Calderon will be true to his word and remove the penalties. If not, this ought to be the “last straw” which persuades citizens to look through the lens of liberty and realize that the overcriminalization of everyday activities has gone much too far.

Terry Schilling

Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.

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