Most people don’t spend a solid hour of their day discussing the finer points of shopping carts and their theft. But, that is what occurred, and what I observed, a couple of weeks ago in a Maryland House Judiciary Committee hearing. The bill at hand was HB156, sponsored by Delegate Reznik and titled “Criminal Law- Theft of Wheeled Cart- Penalty”.
A brief background on the bill: This bill seeks to increase the fine for theft of wheeled carts from $25 up to $100. The original fine was implemented in 1957 and has not been changed since. When adjusted for inflation, that $25 in 1957 becomes $204 in 2012 dollars. So, $100 seems like a logical, if underestimated, update.
Trash Free Maryland’s Julie Lawson (who I shadowed for the day) testified at the hearing. She was in support of the bill with the understanding that the increased penalty would deter theft and, consequently, the dumping of the carts. According to her testimony, evidence of dumped shopping carts have been found in streams, creeks, and rivers all over Maryland and her written testimony noted that, “volunteers with Clean Bread and Cheese Creek have removed more than 160 carts since 2009”. She went on to express how the dumped carts can increase flooding and erosion, be harmful to animals that get caught in them, and especially harmful to people as they try and remove them. On top of all of this, the dumped carts scream blight to passersby, an unwanted presence in any neighborhood. Her hope was that the increased penalty will improve enforcement since it might be worth a municipality’s time with the higher penalty fee.
The other two people testifying at the hearing were Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist representing a national grocery store chain, and Jeff Zellmer, from the Maryland Retailers Association. Their points touched more on the economic side of things, trying to show the financial burden it places on grocery stores to replace the carts, which can cost several hundred dollars a piece.
Throughout the hearing, several delegates spoke up here and there asking questions, probing, and generally doing their job. But one delegate in particular, Luiz Simmons from Montgomery County, started asking very pointed questions that changed the hearing from, what, I thought, seemed like a simple procedure for a something that would certainly have support and pass, to a rigorous reevaluation of the bill and a bit of a wake-up call for those involved.
The following are some of the excellent points made and questions asked with a few of my own reflections that I had along the way:
– Who is charged the fine? Does the person have to actually be seen stealing the cart or is it the person seen wheeling it around after the actual theft?
– Couldn’t people always just say they found the cart somewhere and were using it if they weren’t seen stealing it? If that person were truthful and were actually using the cart in a beneficial manner is that better than dumping the cart?
– Many people who use shopping carts off store premises may not be able to pay the $100 fine. What happens then? Do these people have to do some sort of community service instead (perhaps removing dumped carts from streams)? If this were the case, how would this ease the financial burden to the grocery stores?
Delegate Simmons then made the best point of all, that an existing general theft statute (7-104) already exists that has a stricter punishment than what HB156 is trying to pass. In this statute, a person can be fined up to $500 for items in a certain price bracket, in which a shopping cart falls. So, he was saying, why don’t we just do away with the special provision for wheeled carts and, instead, lump it into the general statute? Touché.
Looking around at the room at this juncture, there was a palpable air of sheepishness. Personally, I was very impressed that Delegate Simmons spoke up about the redundancy. As much as I went into the day a little jaded by the thought of politics (although I had no real reason for this, just a general feeling of the ineffectiveness that plagues many governments), I came out pleasantly surprised to know that, even if the number of things accomplished isn’t as high as my ideal, there exist intelligent politicians who are willing to speak up and show the ridiculousness of a situation.
Now, if only this could be done in a pleasant, productive manner across all spectrums of government…
-By Ann DeSanctis, Anacostia Watershed Society
Update (2/14/13): HB156 passed the Judiciary committee unanimously, with the amendment to repeal the shopping cart provision and make shopping cart theft subject to the General Theft Statute. As Ann described above, this move makes the penalty for stealing a cart $500. A similar amendment is expected in the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee. -Julie