Litter crackdown in Nazareth smacks of selective prosecution

There went Thomas Trachta's hopes for a successful appeal of what had to be the most mortifying court setback since Capt. Queeg was rolling his ball bearings in "The Caine Mutiny."

Not only did a judge take a verbal rubber hose to the Nazareth police chief, but the county's district attorney dissed Trachta's case as "nonsense."

That sort of double-whammy is not likely to do much for Trachta's law enforcement career.

When three young men posted anti-Trachta stickers all over town, his police force filed charges of criminal mischief, carrying a year in jail, plus lesser charges of littering.

Based on what I've read, I happen to agree with Trachta that there was littering going on here, and I'm a ferocious foe of littering. Trevor Gehret, 30; Daniel Logothetis, 23; and Jeremy Peters, 22, were accused of placing hundreds of little "FT" (Fire Trachta) messages on street signs, parking meters, trees and other objects.

That, to me, is wrong. But if there are other more serious examples of littering going on in Nazareth, the crackdown, dubbed "Stickergate," may represent selective prosecution, a truly vile practice.

Last week's ruling by District Judge Jacqueline Taschner said the case against the three men was more about a crackdown on free speech than a crackdown on littering.

"Trachta is a public official. He needs to suck it up, cupcake," she said.

Even if Taschner had ruled otherwise, it would have been hard to picture the chief winning at the county courthouse level — not after the way District Attorney John Morganelli described the case.

"It sounded to me like a bunch of nonsense," he said. "Judge Taschner made the right decision. … It's a case where police have to understand … that citizens have a right to comment on our performance."

Before we get to Trachta's performance, note that the performance of some of the Stickergate defendants has not always been angelic. Gehret, it was reported in June, previously did six months in jail and was angry over the way he had been treated at a borough council meeting. Peters also did some time, it was reported.

The Bill of Rights, however, does not say that free speech can be exercised only by people who have never been in trouble.

In 2011, then-Mayor Fred Daugherty accused Trachta of being an ineffective manager and playing politics, and Borough Council voted unanimously to disband the entire police force. Trachta opposed that move, which some people in town believed was aimed mainly at getting rid of him. In any case, the disbandment plan was not implemented.

At a Borough Council meeting in July of this year, there were citizen demands for an investigation of Trachta over allegations of racism, bullying and other wrongdoing. Nazareth Mayor Carl R. Strye Jr. said he would personally look into the allegations, but added at the time, "I'm convinced most of this is unfounded."

As for selective enforcement, Trachta was quoted as saying that "we enforce all the laws." If all the laws were being enforced in Nazareth, does that mean Trachta cracked down on other litterbugs as zealously as he did in the case of the Stickergate three? Nazareth has no other litter problems? Filtered cigarette butts are never found on borough sidewalks or streets? Lowlifes never let their dogs leave droppings on other people's property?

How many such litter criminals have been hauled into court by Nazareth police on charges that carry a year in jail?

I have argued that one way to solve some of our worst littering problems would be to require deposits on beverage containers, containers from fast-food joints and cigarette filters. Anybody who bought cigarettes would have to pay a dollar deposit on each one, and that $20 would be credited each time he or she purchased a new pack after turning in the used filters. (We had beverage container deposits when I was a boy, and they worked great.)

Dealing with the worst litter problem of all is more difficult because it would require a constitutional amendment.

Courts have ruled against restrictions on political campaign signs, saying they represent free speech, just like the FT stickers in Nazareth. Free speech rights, the courts apparently believe, do not apply to individual citizens or people who have businesses, so their signs can be strictly regulated for the good of a community.

Fellow columnist Bill White is more fanatic on this issue than I, but he mainly focuses on the swine who fail to clean up their campaign sign trash after an election, naming names of the worst offenders.

I focus on all such signs, before or after an election, because they represent the very worst characteristics of our political system.

When you see a campaign sign that splashes only the candidate's face and name, with no information of any kind on what that candidate stands for, you are not looking at an example of free speech.

You are looking at the face of someone who wants to hide his or her true character, and you should vote accordingly, at least until the courts decide to suck it up and end the selective application of the First Amendment.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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