GOSHEN — County officials passed an anti-littering law with teeth Monday, something local law enforcement had asked for as trash began piling up along the roads last spring.

The ordinance approved by the Elkhart County Commissioners adds a chapter to the county code called Litter Prevention. It requires haulers to secure their load, particularly if it’s trash or recyclables, and sets a $250 fine for a first offense.

The fine increases to $500 for repeat offenses. The law applies to individuals as well as commercial drivers.

And unlike the past method of enforcement – when a cop had to be in the right place at the right time to catch someone in the act – the sheriff’s office will have a dedicated officer on the lookout. The officer will be funded by the County Highway Department as well as with money from the county landfill, according to Commissioner Mike Yoder.

“This is not an empty ordinance. We plan to enforce this,” Yoder said. “There will be a county deputy who will be assigned to enforce this ordinance, as well as working with the County Highway Department in partnership too.”

Intentional or not

The new law takes effect July 1. It grew out of a public forum in May 2018, which the commissioners held after receiving numerous complaints about roadside trash.

Much of the litter seemed to be blowing off of vehicles associated with manufacturers in Elkhart County, Yoder had said at the forum. He observed that people must have been seeing that and taking it as permission to throw their own trash out the window.

The result was unsightly roadways and the threat of the county earning an ugly reputation. Law enforcement officials, including Prosecuting Attorney Vicki Becker and now-sheriff Jeff Siegel, said existing laws were hard to enforce and didn’t put much of a dent in an offender’s wallet.

County attorney Craig Buche said Monday that one of the standards to meet in drafting the new law was that you have to establish intent on the part of the litterer. 

“The prosecutor indicated and local police have indicated that the state law dealing with litter requires that they prove some type of intent, that it was an intentional act,” he said. “So what we have done is provided that people need to operate, drive, move, park their vehicles in such a way, and load them in such a way, that’s to prevent waste from being released... So that if it occurs, it doesn’t matter whether or not the person intended to release trash.”

The ordinance specifically forbids releasing or allowing the escape of trash from someone’s person or property, in addition to requiring that vehicle loads be secured. It states that not intending to litter or not being aware of it happening is not a valid defense.

Buche said people who allow trash to fall from their vehicle onto public land could be cited under state law, the county ordinance or both. 

Commissioner Frank Lucchese said even before the law was written, last year’s summit seemed to have some positive effect. Commissioner Suzie Weirick agreed, saying tarps over trash loads suddenly seemed to have fewer holes in them.

Yoder said another part of the county’s anti-littering efforts will be to start a public campaign sometime later this year to raise awareness. 

“Our goal here is not to collect a large amount of funds. Our goal is to encourage more responsible behavior,” he said. “We decided at the summit that it’s been a lot of years since we had TV ads and other public relations-oriented material to just raise awareness that it’s generally our society’s norm to not litter.”

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