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Guest Opinion: Imposing fines for shopping cart theft will be futile

By David Warren–
The Citrus Heights City Council is considering an ordinance to institute fines and misdemeanor penalties for individuals who remove shopping carts from business premises as well as civil penalties for businesses whose shopping carts are found abandoned on the streets.

Related: Proposed ordinance seeks fines up to $500 for theft of shopping carts

The proposals are but another example of government pursuing futile penalties to resolve societal ills, i.e., (1) financial inability of individuals to provide for a home/apartment in which to live and (2) the failure to provide treatment for (a) mental illness and (b) alcohol and drug habituation.

Since June of 1971 when Richard Nixon announced the “War on Drugs” and 1967 when the California Reagan administration closed California’s mental health beds without budgeting replacements, the number of homeless individuals has increased exponentially, whether on the street due to financial, mental health or habituation issues.

For almost a half a century, the response to all of the above has been to remove such individuals from public view via incarceration. This was put to a stop when Federal Courts made the determination that California had run out of bed space in California prisons and mental health facilities.

It is self-evident that most individuals who remove shopping carts from business premises use them as a vehicle to store personal property (i.e., homeless individuals), have neither the financial resources to pay the penalties set forth in the proposed ordinance nor will make any effort to pay the fine. Thus, there is no disincentive to such individuals to stop them from removing the shopping carts from the place of business.

Related: Latest count shows just 89 homeless people in Citrus Heights. Is it accurate?

The proposed ordinance instead aggravates the homeless problem. Credit reporting services can pick up unpaid municipal fines as part of a credit record which will hinder the move from homelessness into housing because of the negative credit comments. Thus, the ordinance will add to the homeless population, increasing the need for shopping cart thefts and the consequential aggravation of the shopping cart problem.

Issuing citations to homeless individuals who lack a permanent address is an inefficacious futile act. Homeless individuals have no residence address in which to seek enforcement of a fine. Any effort to enforce the ordinance as a misdemeanor is pointless in that:

  • The booking cost at the County jail exceeds any benefit to the city;
  • Any individual taken into custody for a shopping cart violation will be immediately released from custody because of County jail overcrowding;
  • The city will be responsible to taking into custody and safely storing the arrestees personal property, along with incurring the cost of reuniting the property to the arrestee; and
  • The cost of prosecuting the misdemeanor will exceed any minuscule potential benefit to the city.

The fact that the homeless individual who is cited pursuant to this ordinance will not face any real consequence will likely result in a further degradation of respect for the police because it proffers evidence of the impotence of the police to regulate homeless conduct.

Related: ‘Just disgusting.’ Homeless camp, litter cleaned up along Citrus Heights on-ramp

The ordinance should also be rejected because of the unnecessary burden that it places upon retail businesses.

Businesses should only be charged for shopping carts which are confiscated from their business premises if the business has demonstrably failed to install reasonable security measures. A business owner who undertakes best practice shopping cart security measures should not face fines any more than a property owner who acts to prevent the use of illegal fireworks on their property but fails because of a miscreant tenant or trespasser.

The actual solution to abandoned shopping carts and homeless individuals on our streets is fourfold. The City Council must:

  1. Instead of approving the construction of new six-figure residential units, focus on the construction of low-income housing so that the homeless can move off the streets;
  2. Compel the County to provide more than the modicum of mental health and habituation rehabilitation beds now available;
  3. Demand that the Governor and Legislature amend the Lanterman–Petris–Short Act to make it easier to involuntarily commit individuals for treatment who are suffering from mental disease and habituation; and
  4. Stop using the most unfortunate as political punching bags to garner votes by alleging they are being “tough on the homeless problem.”

Homelessness, substance habituation and mental health require financial investment to resolve. The problem will not go away by attempting to criminalize the conduct of the homeless, the mentally ill and habituated. It costs money and requires dedication to solve the problem.

There are very few Jean Valjean success stories, so instead we should remember the words of the Sanhedrin 4:5, “anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”

David Warren is a legislative advocate at the State Capitol with Taxpayers for Public Safety, and can be reached at

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