Dirty Deeds

Published January 12, 2012

A Maryland man now has a criminal record for connecting a sewer line discharging from a backed-up sewer pipe inside a military retirement home in Washington, DC to an outside storm drain.

The home’s manager said staff there had understood the storm drain discharged to the local sewage treatment plant, and it had been their practice for decades to make such connections. About 30 percent of the storm drains in the DC area are connected to the treatment plant. But the storm drain involved is not; instead it goes to Rock Creek.

Most criminal laws include an element of intent, but the Clean Water Act does not. It’s a “strict liability” statute, so the act of connecting the pipe from the retirement home to the storm drain amounts to guilt. Though the crime is a misdemeanor–less serious than a felony–the consequences “can be quite grave,” said one law professor, with impacts on job applications, loans, licenses, international travel, and joining the military. The man pled guilty to the misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation.

The man is bitter over his treatment and quit his job. He eventually found two others. His lowest point came when he was fingerprinted and had his mug shot snapped. “I was treated like everybody else, like I was a hardened criminal,” he said. “Imagine what I looked like. ‘What you in for? Backed up toilets.'”

Source: Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller, “A Sewage Blunder Earns Engineer a Criminal Record,” Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2011