Guest opinion: Local governments should rethink criminal ordinances


Molly Davis


When a problem arises in a particular neighborhood, many think the local governing body has a duty to write a law prohibiting the underlying activity.

Perhaps there was an infamous party house and the culprits were Airbnb renters—so ban Airbnb. Maybe a family had three dogs that wouldn’t stop barking—so only allow two dogs per household, and require them to be licensed. Despite his inability to drive, an elderly fellow kept his old car in his driveway, creating an eyesore for surrounding neighbors—so prohibit unregistered vehicles on residential property. 

This trend of blanket bans on particular activities happens time and time again at all levels of government. But the impacts of such regulations can be devastating for individuals, and governing bodies should be very cautious about enacting strict, arbitrary laws that restrict people’s property rights.

In May, the Smith family of Heber City faced quite the shock when they opened their mailbox to a letter from the court, summoning the mother of the family, Emily, to appear on account of three misdemeanor charges stemming from an incident when their dog ran off. The charges were letting a dog run at large, no dog license, and no rabies violation—which the dog had, but wasn’t wearing a tag for. (Names have been changed to protect anonymity.) Until this point, Emily had no idea she had done anything to elicit such serious charges; she had no interactions with law enforcement that would bring about this type of trouble. Yet, the summons was printed clearly, and she’s not one to disobey the law. 

About a month before the letter arrived, the Smith’s family dog made a run for it, escaping the home to explore on her own. This, unfortunately, had happened before, but the dog always returned to the hands that fed her. But this time was different. The Smiths received a call from the local shelter to get the sweet yet mischievous dog; someone had seen the dog and called animal control to pick it up. Emily collected the dog and thought the ordeal was over—but the court summons indicated she was very wrong.

Instead of heading home to her kids after her 12 hour night shift at the hospital where she works as a nurse, Emily drove an hour to her court hearing. She had just enough time to catch a couple of hours of sleep in her car in the parking lot before her 9 am appointment. But even after driving all this way, the court didn’t make a final decision until another hearing happened over a month later. In the end, the court dismissed the charges—it doesn’t take much to figure out why. 

Altogether, the incident was a giant hassle for the Smith family, costing them time and money they won’t ever get back. And it begs the question: should Emily have been criminally charged in the first place? Probably not. But all across Utah, city and county ordinances penalize many of their nuisance and zoning code violations as a class B misdemeanor by default. This is the case in Wasatch County, which wrote the municipality code that Emily violated. Whether it’s for an overgrown lawn, a snoozing cat in a person’s front yard or a brand new backyard shed, this class B misdemeanor standard in municipal codes means that Utahns will continue to face criminal charges for low-level violations that don’t victimize others.

When government officials become aware of an issue that they believe requires a new law, and when that proposal possibly restricts a person’s property rights, they should have to reasonably articulate why the violation should be punished criminally, rather than criminalizing it by default under the traditional class B misdemeanor standard. If they cannot articulate a justifiable reason, then an infraction would likely be more appropriate. 

This approach will take a little more work, but will result in more thoughtful and intentional decisions about how the laws cities and counties are writing will affect residents. And instead of quickly resorting to criminal charges for first-time offenses, warnings should be issued so people like Emily aren’t needlessly caught up in the criminal justice system. These suggestions would not be difficult to implement and would save time and money for both taxpayers and the affected individuals like Emily. 

Focusing on actual harm, rather than arbitrary standards, will avoid the serious ramifications of unnecessary criminalization of local ordinances. This can help build stronger communities based on neighborly trust, rather than fear of heavy-handed code enforcement.  

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.