An army of busybody enforcers in Britain levied fines of about £9million ($11.6 million) last year in overweening punishments for people who dropped cigarette butts.
Various types of warden and official are allowed to levy spot fines for things like littering, being too noisy in public or even handing out leaflets.
According to civil liberties pressure group The Manifesto Club, a quiet revolution is taking place across the UK, with the number of fines issued by for-profit officials privately hired by the state more than tripling in a single year.
A news release based on Freedom of Information requests said that in the year ending December 2016, British councils issued 141,125 fines via private collectors.
The year before, the figure was 42,529, and figures for the year ending December 2012 were just 73,536.
Collectively the fines – about £80 to £90 a time – are estimated to have cost Britons as much as £10million.
Data showed that approximately 90% of the offences – and therefore some £9million of the cash – was levied for dropping cigarette butts.
Josie Appleton, the director of the Manifesto Club, suggested that enforcers are picking on smokers because they’re easy targets.
The reason for this large volume of fines is that this is the easiest offence to catch: wardens tend to hang out at bus-stops, or somewhere without cigarette bins, waiting for people to put their cigarettes out on the ground. These fines are issued even when the person dropped the butt down the [drain] (thinking this the most responsible thing to do) or when the ground-down end of the roll-up was so small as to be impossible to identify. One man was fined when the warden claimed that he had dropped a [filter paper], even though the man was unaware of this and the warden could not identify the item dropped.
Appleton also warned that the new approach of local governments hiring private companies to enforce the rules, rather than their own staff was creating perverse incentives.
As many companies are allowed to keep most – if not all – of the cash they collect, she argued that it now makes sense for them to focus on issuing as many fines as possible, regardless of their merit.
Meanwhile, the goal of keeping their local areas clean is allowed to fall by the wayside.