Texas city passes first plastic bag ban with criminal penalties

02 March 2012 17:52  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--The city council of Austin, Texas, on Friday approved a ban on single-use plastic bags that opponents said may contain the nation’s first criminal penalties for plastic bag use by retailers.

The bag ban, approved with a unanimous council vote, will go into effect on 1 March 2013 and includes $2m (€1.5m) in public education funds to make city retailers and residents aware of the prohibition.

Austin, the 14th largest US municipality, is among more than 20 US cities to ban use of retail plastic bags, and it is the largest Texas city to prohibit their use.

Although the council bill does not specifically provide a criminal penalty for retailers who distribute single-use plastic bags after 1 March 2013, a senior official at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) contends that the newly approved law includes misdemeanour criminal fines by default.

Marc Levin, director of the foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, said that underlying Austin city legal code provides that any city public health ordinance that includes only civil penalties “automatically kicks into effect default criminal penalties”.

Levin said that the Austin bag ban would consequently provide a misdemeanour criminal fine of up to $2,000 for a violation involving distribution of plastic bags to retail customers.

He said he was not aware of any other municipal bag ban in the US that provides criminal penalties.

A misdemeanour violation usually involves lesser criminal offenses with fines and jail sentences of up to one year.

In addition, Levin contends that because the Austin bag ban law also requires that retailers post signs informing customers that they must bring their own multi-use bags, any failure to post such signs could be subject to the misdemeanour criminal penalty.

The Austin bag ban includes exemptions for plastic bags used by laundries and dry cleaners, newspaper delivery bags and some other single-use plastic bags provided by specific vendors such as pharmacies and for restaurant carry-out foods.

Levin said the bag ban “is yet another example of the problem of over-criminalisation, the growing number of criminal laws that apply to ordinary activities that are not morally wrong and do not directly harm others”.

He said that inclusion of criminal penalties in the measure was not inadvertent or unintended because his organisation had made council members well aware of the underlying city code requirements and consequences for the bag ban.

Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell’s office was not immediately available for comment.  Leffingwell was a major proponent for the legislation, according to a council spokesman.

($1 = €0.75)

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By: Joe Kamalick
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