The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office filed felony vandalism charges against 46-year-old Ocean Beach, California, resident Juvencio Adame for “defacement, damage and destruction” of public property in excess of $400. Felony charges can result in significant prison time.
His “crime”? Trimming shrubbery next to his home.
What would possess Adame to do such a thing? Adame told neighbors that the overgrown shrubbery, which is technically on public land, became a haven for homeless people who slept under it and littered the area. Thus, he engaged in self-help—clearly not a malicious act.
To be sure, citizens pay to maintain public property, so it’s appropriate to fine those who damage it. But charging someone with a felony under these circumstances?
The criminal law contains the harshest penalties that the state can impose upon citizens. Criminal sanctions should be reserved for those who do things that are morally blameworthy and that a reasonable person would recognize as a criminal act.
Adame’s conduct is not morally blameworthy, nor would a reasonable person in Adame’s position have realized that such a harmless act of beautification would subject him to criminal sanctions.
Sadly, it’s not unusual to see public-spirited citizens being threatened with criminal penalties. We wrote several months ago about Washington, D.C.’s “Phantom Planter,” who dared to make one of the city’s Metro stops more aesthetically pleasing. He, too, was threatened with fines and jail. Metro officials settled for destroying the flowers he had planted.
One of Adame’s neighbors, Glenn Goss, points out that Adame was, in effect, doing the city’s job: “Here’s somebody who’s going out of his way (to trim the trees). It’s not his job, it’s the city’s job. Then they do this ridiculous thing. It’s mind-boggling.”
Mind-boggling is right. Thankfully, officials eventually came to their senses, and the charges were dropped. But it’s important to emphasize that prosecuting people like Adame is not only a waste of taxpayers’ money—it’s an egregious misuse of the criminal law.
The felony charges never should have been brought in the first place. Let’s hope that other jurisdictions act with less haste and use more common sense.
The Heritage Foundation’s project USA vs. YOU spotlights the flood of criminal laws threatening our liberties. Explore more stories of overcriminalization and find out what you can do to reverse this trend.