Help Desk: Ticketed for trash

City Howl is a Web site that lets citizens post their raves or rants about city services (see thecityhowl. com). Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

The problem: What Donna Darby remembers is that on the morning of March 18, she put a single trash bag out in front of her West Philly home. The bag contained several days' worth of garbage, which she keeps frozen until it's time to put outside.

The night before, Darby had seen trash bags and a brown wooden chest with toys on it in front of her next-door neighbor's property. In the morning, the chest and toys were still there, along with her neighbor's trash, which was strewed on the sidewalk.

When Darby came home from work later that day, she found a violation notice, with a $50 fine, citing her for not separating recyclables from rubbish and noting that bottles, cans or paper were found in a bag or can.

Darby's call to 3-1-1 directed her to the Office of Finance, which handles the payment of code violation. She wrote a detailed letter to them explaining that she believed she was fined for a trash infraction that was not of her doing. She hadn't heard back when she wrote a letter to the Daily News asking what she could do.

How this works: It's worth noting that Darby doesn't own a recycling bin and, when we asked, wasn't aware of city recycling procedures, such as which items must be recycled.

We asked if her trash bag contained recyclables the day she received her ticket. "It was a little teeny bag with garbage and trash in it. It certainly didn't have recyclables in it," she said.

Regardless, her situation raises an interesting question about people receiving code violations in error. What do you do if someone strews trash in front of your house, and you get ticketed?

We spoke with Carlton Williams, deputy commissioner at the Streets Department, who oversees a team of 47 designated uniformed Sidewalk and Walkways Education and Enforcement Program (SWEEP) officers who issue code violations.

He also supervises about 50 Streets employees with the authority to write citations on their trash-collection routes.

The three most common violations, Williams said, are littering (garbage in front of your property), high weeds (taller than 18 inches), and mixing recyclables with trash. The fourth is putting trash out too early.

"If a recycling bin isn't set out, we look at the trash," Williams said, and if a significant number of recyclables is found, a fine is issued. An occasional item, like a can with liquid inside, doesn't merit a fine.

We asked Williams how SWEEP officers know exactly who committed specific infractions, and he explained that the default is to assume trash belongs to the resident on whose property it's found.

But if an officer happens to find a different address in a trash bag, or it's otherwise clear that the trash belongs to someone else, the property owner may be off the hook. As with traffic tickets, Williams said, residents who receive trash tickets can choose to appeal them.

Residents who believe they've been fined in error need to check the appropriate box on the back of the violation notice and return it to Finance, said Christina, an operator in the department's code violation unit.

In turn, Finance schedules a hearing, and, depending on its outcome, the fine is either waived or remains. If late penalties have been incurred, a third outcome would be to reduce the fine to its original amount.

But short of providing eyewitness testimony or video footage, how can someone prove that a fine is unwarranted? After all, the garbage in question is gone.

Williams oversees the team that issues citations, not the people who conduct the appeals hearings, but he acknowledged that it's usually "on the citizen" to be able to prove that he didn't commit an infraction.

We called Paula Weiss, executive director of Finance's office of administrative review, to find out what happens at these appeals hearings, which typically run five to 20 minutes. Hearings occasionally take longer if an issue is complicated, or a person has brought in significant documentation or other people testify.

Depending on the type of violation, the evidence will vary, Weiss said.

Someone fined for having high weeds, for example, might bring in photos to show that bushes or plants in a garden were mistaken for weeds.

A person ticketed for littering could present photos showing that the property in question is typically clean, and that he wasn't responsible for the actual littering. Or letters from neighbors attesting that this person keeps his property well-maintained.

The hearing officers, Weiss said, will often consider a property's history before making a decision. So someone who has lived in the same house for 15 years and has no prior violations may be able to make a stronger case.

So what about Darby's ticket? If Darby wants to appeal, she'll have to return her violation notice with the appropriate box checked. (She wrote a detailed letter to Finance, but that's not enough - you have to check that box.)

Darby would rather not take time off from work to attend a hearing, but she still has every intention of appealing the fine through official channels.

"You had to look inside that trash bag to know what's in it," she said. "I'm getting charged without proof."

- Kirstin Lindermayer

Have a problem getting services from a city department, or an idea for a more effective way to get things done? Let us know about it at City Howl or write:

City Howl, c/o the Daily News, 400 N. Broad St., Phila., Pa. 19130.