EDITORIAL: Who needs regulations?

A LOT OF TALK right now about getting rid of regulations. People like me, who run a business, love to tell stories about mindless rules administered by officials who value compliance over freedom itself.

The private sector has a few bad apples. But they’re the exception, right? Imagine this poor guy here in the county facing a jail sentence for “yard waste.” So now it’s against the law to pile leaves on your property? There ought to be a law against laws like that. What’s next, the Leaf Police?

It’s tempting to believe government always goes too far. Take this yard waste case. It unfolded in Copake Town Court last month, where serial scofflaw Sal Cascino went on trial for a misdemeanor charge of dumping without a permit. A jury of six men needed all of 45 minutes to convict him.

There wasn’t any doubt about his guilt based on the facts. Officers of the state Department of Environmental Conservation photographed the yard waste being dumped. Mr. Cascino’s lawyers didn’t present witnesses on their client’s behalf. The assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case characterized the defense as saying: “it wasn’t a crime… because it was yard waste.”

That type of fact-free courtroom defense isn’t as lame as sounds. Sometimes juries ignore the government’s facts in a criminal case. Instead of convicting a defendant despite evidence of guilt, the jurors vote to acquit because the they believe the law is unfair or because they’re convinced the law does not apply in the case.

It’s called jury nullification and it has a long history in America, going back more than 40 years before the Revolution. John Peter Zenger, a printer and editor of a weekly newspaper in New York (and an immigrant), was tried for reporting on the corrupt practices of the colony’s British governor. The judge told the jurors to convict; the jury found him innocent. Echoes of the case appear in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the part about free speech and freedom of the press.

Sal Cascino’s jury did not buy that line. As appealing as it is to sympathize with a “victim” of frivolous regulation, that’s not the profile of Mr. C. evident over the last 18 years, as he has turned much of his 300 acres of farmland next to the hamlet of Copake into a commercial waste dump.

He’s not your average homeowner raking leaves in his front yard and leaving them to blow onto his neighbor’s lawn. He has 18-wheeler-type trucks hauling tons of materials that look like yard waste to his property. What else is in those loads?

Maybe it’s all leafs and twigs. So is he running his unlicensed dumping operation as a charity? Not likely. And if he charges for dumping, his rates can be lower than landfills that operate lawfully and must take steps to protect the environment around them. By ignoring the law he gains unfair advantage over his competitors. If you were in the licensed waste disposal business you wouldn’t see Mr. C. as smart businessman. You’d see him as a crook and a parasite.

He doesn’t limit his contempt for the rules to his business practices. He tried to bamboozle Acting State Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Nichols, who has put Mr. C in jail twice and who is keeping him confined there. Ordered last year by Judge Nichols to provide proof he’s removed some of the tons of illicit debris at the Copake site, Mr. C. offered documents so obviously bogus that Mr. C.’s own lawyers refused to introduce them as evidence.

This is a tragedy unfolding at the speed of justice. Past delays in holding Mr. C. to account allowed him to expand his intentional fouling of the landscape and broaden the threat to streams and other local water sources. What the community needs now are even more muscular regulatory and legal enforcement by state and local officials to shut down his operation, assess the damage to the site and to remove him from all involvement in the remediation of his property except paying for it.

Mr. C. has portrayed himself as a legitimate business owner and grandpa wrongly accused. It’s a fairy tale he uses to exploit public fears about the government going too far in protecting the health and safety of the public. Think of him instead as a commercial predator. He’s one among many and the only protection we have from his kind come from strong regulations and the law.

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