When Darrin Podder went to dig up some dead trees from a construction site in Pompano Beach on June 5, 2008, he had no idea he'd end up in handcuffs being led away to jail. Podder didn't know littering was a felony. He didn't even know he was littering.
Like a lot of people, Podder wasn't too clear on what Florida Statute 403.413, the "Florida Litter Law," really means. That isn't too surprising, considering the BSO deputies who arrested Podder that day didn't really know either.
In fact, FS 403.413 appears to be a statute in desperate need of cleaning up.
Podder, a landscaper, had gone to replant some trees at the newly constructed Carver Homes Redevelopment Project. He'd previously planted six trees along the swale there, but the trees died. So he went over to fix the problem. Podder was planning to dig up the dead trees with his backhoe and put them temporarily across the street at Phase II of the project, which was still unfinished. Then he was going to unload the new trees from his truck, plant them in the empty holes, load the dead trees onto his truck, and drive away. The job, he thought, wouldn't take more than a couple of hours.
But Podder had no sooner dug up the first 20-foot tree and moved it across the street with the backhoe when BSO deputy Willie Jones showed up.
Jones asked Podder what he was doing. Podder told him. Jones told Podder to get out of the backhoe. When he did, Jones cuffed him and took him to jail, charging him with a felony count of dumping.
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Then BSO towed away Podder's backhoe and impounded it. And you can guess the rest of the story. One big freaking headache, right? Pain and suffering, humiliation, loss of liberty, loss of income -- the works. Podder, it turned out, was allegedly "dumping" an object weighing more than 500 pounds, which is a third-degree felony. Florida law is so vague on the subject that if you happen to be cutting down a tree in your yard and a big branch falls into the swale and if a deputy happens by before you can saw it up and move it, you could end up like Podder. If you've ever parked your car on the swale next to your house, you've committed a felony. If your car breaks down and you leave it on the side of the road while you go for help, that's a felony too. Because "dump" means "dump, throw, discard, deposit, place, or dispose of." Like, for ten seconds, ten hours, or ten days. And the statute says it's the duty of law enforcement officers to enforce those provisions.
Podder's attorney, Hugh Koerner, filed a civil suit against BSO for false arrest and imprisonment, alleging that "no reasonably cautious police officer would have believed Podder was guilty of a criminal offense." The hilarious depositions taken for the case read like something out of a William Gaddis novel. "I fully intended to demonstrate what a mockery this was," Koerner told the Juice, "a mockery of justice. This statute needs to be fixed!" Two weeks ago, Podder won a $30,000 judgment against BSO.
So whether you've ever cut up a tree or left your wheelbarrow temporarily on the swale while you went inside to pee or to pour yourself a glass of lemonade -- this case affects you too. That's your tax dollars at work, baby.
We emailed a handful of Broward legislators this morning to ask them about your littering laws. We'll update as soon as we hear back.