Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.

This week's question comes from a New Yorker who got busted discarding cat poop in a street-level city garbage can.

Hey Jake,

I got stopped for violating the Department of Sanitation rule 120(e) on the way to work this morning, and I'm wondering if I should try contesting it or just pay up the ticket I got. Rule 120(e) regards Improper Use of DSNY Litter Baskets, specifically, disposing of household waste in a street trash can.

Every morning before leaving for work, I scoop up my cat's litter into a small grocery bag, and toss it into a street can on the way to the subway. I weigh this against keeping dried up poop in my apartment for half a week at a time, and it has always seemed like the least of evils.

Today, however, a plain-clothes DSNY agent stopped me about a block after I dropped off my bag and asked if I had brought the bag from inside my house. Not really thinking, I said that I did, and was given a $100 ticket for my troubles.

I'd always been under the impression that the household trash rule was to prevent people from putting full garbage bags in the trash, not for disposing of small items that would seem to be covered in the "similar light garbage" category. Maybe I got stopped because it's the last week of the month and they have to hit quota, maybe I've just been lucky for the past few years of my cat's life.

Should I take this issue to court or just suck it up and pay the fine?

Fed Up With This Shit

A native New Yorker responds:

Dear Fed Up,

A little Native New York advice: when you are stopped by the PoPos, keep your mouth shut. As in: be polite, produce your license if you are asked for ID, but don't volunteer any helpful information, like where you're coming from, what recent crimes you've committed, or your feelings on the recent police violence.

Area scofflaw Jake Dobkin enjoys an alcoholic beverage on an illicit rooftop. (Courtesy Jake Dobkin Private Collection)

Pay the $100 ticket, frame the receipt, and let it be a reminder to you and your friends not to self-incriminate. As you are actually guilty of the violation for which you were ticketed, and admitted it to the officer, going to court is unlikely to lead to the ticket getting dismissed—I don't think your "but it was just a little bit of residential cat poop" is going to elicit much sympathy from a judge.

But I do sympathize with you, and agree that the law should be rewritten to allow people to throw out small amounts of residential garbage on their way to work without being fined. According to the New York Times, the law is intended to target the owners of illegal apartments without residential trash pickup, and businesses who are trying to skimp on private trash hauling, not poor schmoes tossing out a single envelope or a tiny bag of trash.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: "One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." What about laws like this, that have some just reason for existing (no one wants public trash cans to overflow) but are being misapplied by the authorities?

This isn't just about trash! There are many of these "quality of life" laws on the books (most involving criminal penalties in addition to fines), and our local elected officials are currently engaged in a vigorous debate over which ones to decriminalize. The argument put forward by Melissa Mark-Viverito and her supporters is that the enforcement of these laws is disproportionately directed at minorities and the poor, who end up with criminal records over trivial arrests that then prevent them from getting and keeping jobs.

This is undeniably true. To look at just one piddling offense, the Times found that "last year there were 13 summonses issued by the precinct that covers the largely white Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, while in a precinct that covers part of the largely black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, there were more than 300 such summonses."

Opponents of reform say it's a slippery slope from riding your bike on the sidewalk to gunning down people in the streets. This group, surprisingly, includes former Sandinista guerrilla Bill De Blasio, who has come out against at least some of the reforms. About decriminalizing fare-beating, he said "fare evasion has historically been an offense where a number of the people who were intercepted proved to have a criminal history and in many cases a weapon on them or an outstanding warrant... fare evasion is an area where we're doing things effectively, the right way."

Who is right? The answer is that we should decriminalize and reduce the fines on offenses that don't involve the threat of immediate harm to other people. These include: marijuana possession, turnstile jumping, loitering, public urination, alcohol consumption, being in the park after dark, playing music too loud and littering. However, if you are caught doing any of these things, the police should still have the right to search you for weapons, and run your name for past warrants, and to arrest you if you come up positive on either. Don't like it? Stuff your garbage in your own can, sucker!

Some minor crimes that do involve immediate threat to others should not have the penalties reduced. Among these, I'd include riding your bike on any sidewalk where there are pedestrians, speeding in a car, and public lewdness. What about crimes against property, like graffiti or trespass? As someone who possesses no property and enjoys viewing higher quality graffiti art, I am inclined to view these as fairly harmless crimes that should be dealt with through fines, rather than wasting the valuable time and budget of our criminal courts.

However, I know that my more conservative friends are super-touchy about any crime that could potentially damage their precious real estate, so I recommend putting aside the discussion of these offenses until we deal with the less controversial ones. Besides, far fewer people get popped for catching tags than smoking weed. Did you know we're still arresting a thousand people a month for that?

So anyway, be glad you merely got a ticket for tossing cat poop, and weren't thrown in the Tombs for a couple of days just because you happened to be poor or black and hanging out on the wrong sidewalk when the cops rolled by looking to make their numbers for the month. Rather than complain about your own misfortune, think about all those who have it worse, and support the local politicians who are trying to make things a little better for them.

Ask a Native New Yorker anything via email. Anonymity is assured.