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Toss a cigarette butt, go to jail

Forget about merely annoying others with bad manners: In Illinois, people who throw cigarette butts on the ground can face jail time — up to a whopping three years.

Illinois’ updated “Litter Control Act” subjects anyone who tosses a cigarette butt outside the trash to criminal penalties. The first offense is a Class B misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $1,500. The second offense is a Class A misdemeanor. Three strikes and you’re a felon, facing from one year to three years behind bars and a $25,000 fine.

This isn’t merely petty — it’s pathological. Criminal convictions can deprive people of their liberty and ruin their lives. Criminal law should exist to exact retribution and express moral outrage against people who have done things that are fundamentally wrong — not to police people who casually litter. Even if, as a practical matter, it’s unlikely that we will see anyone locked up for littering, using the criminal law in this way dilutes its authority. What respect can people have for the law in general when it exposes people to a threat of such disproportionate punishment?

It’s completely irrational to single out butt-flicking for such draconian punishment. Candy wrappers, newspapers, and fast-food boxes are equally a nuisance, and to the extent that authorities are concerned about fires, arson laws already exist to deal with that problem.

Such misuse of the criminal law is outrageous, wherever its burden may fall. No American should face jail time for flicking a cigarette butt, even if it’s done thoughtlessly. However divided Americans may be on other issues, we should all be able to agree that such laws reveal not only a lack of any sense of proportion but a complete lack of common sense.

Illinois legislators need to butt out and repeal this silly and dangerous law.

Evan Bernick is a visiting legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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