City uses cameras to combat illegal dumping

The man insisted he didn't illegally dump the toilet by the side of the road. No, he just left it there as a favor for "Moe," a homeless guy who planned to put it to use in a vacant house somewhere.

"That was his story," said city housing official Thomas Waugh.

At least, that was the man's story after one of the city housing department's surveillance cameras caught him ditching the commode along a Southwest Baltimore street. Waugh didn't believe the excuse for a second, and even if he had, dropping off a toilet would still qualify as littering. The man now faces criminal charges.

As head of the housing department's Special Investigations Unit, Waugh hears a lot of far-fetched stories. He also sees a lot of incriminating pictures. Since 2009, photos snapped by the city's array of "trash-cams" have led to 48 criminal convictions, resulting in fines, community service, even jail time.

City crews are now installing several more motion-activated cameras in areas beset by dumping. By the end of the month, 15 will be operational. These are separate from the blue-light police cameras that dot the city. More electronic eyes may be on the way: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed budget, released Wednesday, includes money for 10 video cameras to document dumping.

Trash-filled lots and alleys have long been common in parts of Baltimore, and Waugh doesn't pretend that he and his nine investigators can eliminate the problem. But he says the cameras — which can be moved around as needed — provide a useful enforcement tool.

Images of license plates can prompt quick confessions, and the hope is that people's behavior will change as word gets out that discarding junk improperly can have real consequences.

It helps that some of those spied dumping don't exhibit much savvy. One man was warned about a camera by a passer-by. The man looked straight at the camera — click — and kept tossing debris from the bed of the pickup truck. Click, click, click. Charges are pending.

In another case, investigators visited the home of a man whose vehicle was photographed. He wasn't home, so they left word for him. Later, while reviewing more images from the camera, they saw his car again. The man had returned to continue dumping — this time with cardboard over his license plate.

The man received a 10-day suspended sentence, court records show, and was ordered to perform 80 hours of community service. But the dumping led indirectly to a much stiffer penalty: Because the conviction violated the man's probation, housing officials say, he was sent back to jail for two years.

The cameras have a deterrent effect, particularly at night, when the flash pops as a vehicle pulls up but before dumping can occur. But people rarely seem to notice them during the day, and that's fine, says Jason Hessler, assistant commissioner for litigation, whose lawyers work with Waugh's team.

"We're looking to catch people," Hessler said.

City crews sometimes purposely wait a while before hauling away debris dropped in a camera's field of vision. Junk tends to attract more junk. If someone is going to dump illegally, the logic goes, better for it to happen under the camera's gaze.

A license plate will lead investigators to a car's registered owner, who is legally responsible for trash that comes out of it. But the city tries to charge whoever actually commits the crime. After all, they say, owners may not know that a rogue employee — or relative — is bypassing the landfill or transfer station.

Large-scale littering occasionally occurs without benefit of a motor vehicle. Waugh said a camera once captured a man who appeared seemingly out of nowhere, transporting a refrigerator on a hand-truck.

On a recent weekday, Waugh and Hessler led a tour of three camera locations: a dead-end street in West Baltimore, an area under an elevated stretch of West Lafayette Avenue elsewhere in West Baltimore and a stretch of road in Southwest Baltimore. The officials asked that exact locations be withheld.

At the first stop, the camera was fixed to a pole at the back entrance to a construction firm, pointed at a railroad overpass. Its relatively hidden location has made it a popular dumping spot for years.

Waugh recalls that in 2009, when his unit was created from an environmental crimes unit formerly housed at the Department of Public Works, walking around the area was difficult because it was so choked with debris.

"There was a house dumped there — a house," Waugh said, marveling at the memory. Someone had demolished a rowhouse, transported the rubble in a rolloff container and emptied the contents near the bridge.

Another time, someone parked a 25-foot boat there. Boats can be expensive to discard properly because disposal cost is based on weight.

The camera, housed in a metal box about the size of a basketball and costing about $5,500, can hold 700 to 800 pictures. It has a powerful flash, and a solar panel keeps its battery pack charged. Waugh checks it a few times a week by wirelessly downloading the snapshots to a laptop.

The camera recently recorded a woman as she turned around a rented U-Haul truck before disgorging furniture and other belongings under the bridge.

The woman could have unloaded free of charge at a transfer station had she been driving a personal vehicle.

But commercial haulers and people in rentals like U-Hauls must go to the city's Quarantine Road landfill — and pay a fee. Waugh said the economics are such that if anyone pays $20 or $40 to have junk hauled away, it's almost sure to be dumped illegally.

Armed with numbers visible on the side of the U-Haul, investigators easily tracked down the woman. "We got a confession out of her," Waugh said, adding that she'll soon be charged in housing court.

The city can impose a $500 fine for dumping less than 25 pounds, or $1,000 for heavier amounts.

But officials also can file criminal charges, and often do. Someone convicted of dumping between 100 and 500 pounds can theoretically get up to three years in jail and a $12,500 fine, Hessler said. The maximum penalty for dumping more than 500 pounds is $30,000 and five years in jail.

Since 2009, the unit has won 72 criminal convictions, including the 48 that were camera-aided. All told, dumpers have been ordered to pay $19,000 in fines and perform 1,400 hours of community service, said city housing spokeswoman Cheron Porter.

Judges have imposed a total of 926 days of jail time, she said, though most of that was suspended time that defendants did not have to serve.

Six people have served jail time for dumping, including one man who spent 39 days behind bars, Hessler said. None of those was caught by cameras.

More recently, the housing agency has begun seeking restitution to cover the city's cost of disposing of debris. One person agreed to pay $700 for illegally discarding a boat — a cabin cruiser he left smack in the middle of a road off Interstate 95 in Southwest Baltimore. (He got the boat free from someone in Sykesville but told investigators that he wanted only the trailer.)

At the third stop on the recent tour, "Moe's" toilet was still visible, now shoved a few feet onto a privately owned lot that resembled a junkyard.

For a time, dumping fell drastically at this spot, a change Waugh credited to the camera. This has mainly been a nighttime dumping hot spot, he said, and the flash seemed to get people's attention.

But when the city took the camera away some months back, the dumping gradually returned. So the camera was reinstalled on a streetlight, ready for whatever comes its way.

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