A bird chews on a plastic bag in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As someone who’s adopted a stretch of road, Del. James Edmunds says Virginia’s littering problems have never been worse. 

His theory is that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many restaurants closed for indoor dining, more people are eating in their cars and tossing trash out the window.

“I just can’t imagine having a mindset that I’m just going to throw out my trash on somebody’s place and just dirty up the roads,” Edmunds, R-Halifax, said at a General Assembly committee meeting last month. “It’s just a lack of respect.”

In an effort to prod Virginians to clean up their act, Edmunds filed a bill that would double the minimum fine for littering, taking it from $250 to $500. 

The House of Delegates passed the bill Wednesday in a 67-31 vote that cut across party lines, with bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition. The bill still needs approval from the state Senate.

The legislation was supported by the Virginia Farm Bureau, which said trash can be particularly problematic for farmers when animals eat it or it gets picked up into machines along with crops.

When the Virginia Department of Transportation launched a new anti-littering campaign last year, the agency said the state spends about $3.5 million per year to pick up roadside trash, much of it intentionally thrown out by motorists.

If the bill wins final passage, the maximum fine would stay at $2,500. 

As originally filed, the bill focused on doubling the full range of fines for littering and increasing the number of hours offenders might have to spend picking up trash if sentenced to community service. But the debate on a seemingly straightforward bill became surprisingly complicated, partly due to Democrats’ growing distaste for mandatory minimums in the criminal justice code.

Lawmakers decided to leave the maximum fine unchanged after legislative staffers pointed that raising it to $5,000 would make littering the costliest misdemeanor offense in Virginia law, above crimes like assault and battery and drunk driving. 

Under current law, judges can sentence littering defendants to at least 10 hours of community service in lieu of jail time. Edmunds’ bill proposed quadrupling that to 40 hours.

At a subcommittee hearing, Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, proposed amending the bill to allow judges to give up to 40 hours community service, without making 40 hours a mandatory minimum.

“That gives the court the ability to fashion the right amount of service,” Scott said.

Others pointed out that approach would create a new cap that doesn’t exist in current law, which sets a minimum of 10 hours with no upper limit. If 40 hours were a maximum instead of a minimum, they said, the bill would arguably be reducing littering penalties, not increasing them.

“I think there’s going to be situations where a judge may want to order 40 hours and more than 40 hours may be appropriate,” said Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax. “So I don’t think I can support capping it.”

Even in diminished form, some legislators felt the punishments in the bill were still too steep.

In discussion on the virtual House floor, Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, said the bill makes no distinction between someone dumping a pile of trash on someone else’s property and a driver tossing a cigarette.

“I can imagine there are a number of Virginians who would prefer not to have a half-a-grand fine for tossing a cigarette butt out their car door,” said Mullin, the chairman of the House Court of Justice Committee.

Edmunds said Virginia’s roadsides are so trashy something must be done. He said he hopes the state will consider putting up signs warning drivers of higher fines.

“Someone who is willing to throw out a cigarette butt, which is a fire hazard, would probably throw out their fast food, their beer bottles, their beer cans, dirty diapers. I can’t tell you how many things we find,” Edmunds said. “We have to be serious about this. If you’re for littering, then don’t vote for the bill.”