DEH director calls for fines for litterbugs

It’s hard to miss the scores of abandoned cars that clutter the narrow roads of communities like Washington Boulevard, Watlers Drive, Central Scranton and Windsor Park.

For years, residents and business owners have complained about the derelict vehicles, as well as the excess debris dumped in the areas and the copious amount of litter strewed throughout the surrounding foliage. Although the mess is clearly visible, closing the net on litterbugs is easier said than done.

Department of Environmental Health Director Richard Simms wants to see his officers given the power to issue tickets for littering.

At the moment, to prosecute a person for illegally dumping, the process is the same no matter how large or small the amount. DEH officers must either write a report or team up with police officers and members of the planning department to create a report, which eventually makes its way to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

After reviewing the file, if the DPP decides the case is strong enough to result in a successful prosecution, the matter is filed in Summary Court, a summons is issued, and the defendant is given notice of being required to attend court. All of those steps combined can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. However, before convictions can be recorded and fines issued, the defendant will have to enter a plea. If he or she pleads not guilty, the matter must go to trial, which could see the issue delayed for an even longer period.

Dorline Welcome, community development officer with the Department of Children and Family Services, understands the process all too well.

“Since 2012, we’ve battled with one piece of land filled with derelict cars, and it was only cleared earlier this year,” said Welcome, noting 15 vehicles were removed from a single vacant lot.

The complicated, time-consuming process of multi-departmental paperwork, legal hurdles and numerous court appearances are eventually resolved based on the requirements of a law passed 22 years ago.

Originally enacted in 1982, the most current Cayman Islands Litter Law is the 1997 revision. It states that a person who “is guilty of an offence [is] liable on conviction to a fine of five hundred dollars or imprisonment for six months”.

Simms of the DEH is calling for a review of the “outdated law”.

Pieces of scrapped cars and other debris lie around a vacant lot in Washington Boulevard in George Town. – Photo: Andrel Harris

“A lot of people don’t understand our powers under the Public Health Law, so I want people to know that we do have prosecution powers,” he said. “In relation to littering, we can step up our game in prosecution especially where people are illegally dumping stuff in the neighbourhoods and so on.”

The current process of penalising people is inefficient and needs to be streamlined, Simms said, adding that by giving his officers the power to issue fines or tickets for littering, the level of deterrence would have a more profound impact.

“I would like to see where we can actually write a ticket for those sort of things,” said Simms. “You would feel the effect right away if a ticket is written and you are [sent] on your way. People will get the message quicker that way, rather than this long, drawn-out process through the court to prosecute them.”

The director’s call for modernisation of the law has been welcomed by several members of the community.

“It’s an excellent idea,” said Welcome. “Hit them in their pockets where it hurts. Then they will get the message.”

Richard Simms

Wade Robinson has lived in the Washington Boulevard neighbourhood for more than 40 years and has seen the entire area transform.

“When I first lived here, there were no other homes; it was nothing but swamp,” said Robinson.

Over the last four decades, Washington Boulevard has become one of the hardest-hit communities in George Town. Derelict cars and/or vehicles in the process of being scrapped are a common sight on almost all the surrounding streets. Vacant lots are also littered with old car parts, as well as discarded vegetation. But despite complaints, action is often slow or non-existent.

“We need something to be done about it now, not three or four years later – now,” said Robinson.

Welcome has patrolled the neighbourhoods under her remit for the last several years. She said it had been a constant struggle to remove the abandoned vehicles.

In other communities like Watlers Drive, Central Scranton, Rock Hole and Windsor Park, derelict vehicles are also posing several problems.

“People are sleeping in the cars. They are hiding drugs in them,” said Welcome. “The cars block the roads, they harbour rodents, and they are a health and safety hazard.”

Simms, who is the former director of the Department of Vehicle and Drivers’ Licensing, said if his officers were able to ticket offenders, issues such as abandoned cars could quickly be resolved.

“If people are dumping their cars and throwing them on people’s property, we can easily trace the owner by looking at the VIN number, run it through vehicle licensing and get back to the person,” he said.

An RCIPS spokesperson said since the start of 2019, no one has been arrested or prosecuted for litter-related offences.

Revising the Litter Law will definitely help unclutter the prosecution process. However, if not appropriately implemented, the potential pros could be as problematic as the cons.

Cayman’s current Litter Law prescribes a fine of up to $500. A revision of the law could see those fines increased, but higher penalties could potentially be counterproductive, as South Carolina authorities found, and remedied.

In 2018, South Carolina lawmakers voted to reduce litter fines. The state government approved a bill that saw the maximum fine dropped from US$1,028 to US$100, and the minimum fines dropped from US$200 to US$25. South Carolina’s legislature found that because the previous fines were so high, officers were reluctant to issue tickets to people caught littering.

Despite the calls for modernisation of Cayman’s Litter Law, there is no telling if or when the legislation will be reviewed. Back in June 2014, then Health Minister Osbourne Bodden complained to fellow legislators that litter laws were “too lax”. While addressing MLAs at the time, he said, “We have to tighten it [1997 Litter Law] up. We have to put some teeth in there and make sure that we increase the fines and we charge a few people.” Now more than five years later, the calls for stronger litter laws continue.