Putting the wrong fuel into your car. We probably all know of someone whose done it or maybe you’ve done it. It’s a horrible and costly mistake to make. What do you do?
KEY TAKE OUTS:
- NEVER dump the fuel down a drain!
- Not only corporations can face large penalties.
- The maximum penalty is much higher than people expect – $110,000.00.
Putting the wrong fuel into your car. We probably all know of someone whose done it or maybe you’ve done it. It’s a horrible and costly mistake to make. What do you do? Drive? Mix it with the correct fuel? Call a mechanic or drain it yourself? Then what do you do with fuel? One answer – do not dump the fuel down a drain!
This was the decision confronting a normally law-abiding citizen. Unfortunately, the decision he made landed him before the Local Court facing a maximum penalty of 1,000 penalty units, $110,000.00, under Section 215 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997.
The Defendant was prosecuted under Section 120 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 – Prohibition of pollution waters.
Late last year returning from a family holiday the Defendant stopped off to refuel. Using his wife’s car, probably distracted, not thinking he used the incorrect fuel. Innocent mistake. But that’s where his innocence stops. Instead of calling a mechanic or disposing of the fuel in a lawful manner he elected to push the vehicle over a storm water drain and dump the fuel. This particular storm water drain led into a river.
Unbeknown to the Defendant his actions were being photographed by a member of the community who then reported it to Local Council. Local Council investigated the incident and fined the Defendant. The Defendant elected to have the matter heard in court.
Despite electing to attend court, the Defendant decided to enter a guilty plea.
Prosecuting the Offence: Matters to take into consideration
Section 241 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 sets out the matters which are to be taken into account when sentencing for offences committed under the Act. These include:
(a) the extent of the harm caused or likely to be caused to the environment;
(b) the practical measures that may be taken to prevent, control, abate or mitigate that harm;
(c) the extent to which the person who committed the offence could reasonably have foreseen the harm caused or likely to be caused to the environment by the commission of the offence;
(d) the extent to which the person who committed the offence had control over the causes that gave rise to the offence;
(e) whether, in committing the offence, the person was complying with orders from an employer or supervising employee.
(f) other matters that the court considers relevant.
The take home lesson
Upon reflection, the most challenging aspect of prosecuting this offence was to shift the mindset that only corporations can face large penalties. This prosecutor can recall clearly the silence that fell in the courtroom when asked by the Magistrate what the maximum penalty is for this offence. It’s very high – $110,000.00 high. If you were to take a poll, it’s not what most people would guess. The figure probably came as a shock to the unrepresented defendant as it did to the legal practitioners in the courtroom, who all looked down when the Magistrate was looking for a volunteer to assist the defendant.
But this figure is what the community expects. A maximum fine needs to deter, it needs to make people stop and think. It needs to set a standard. Of course, the defendant was not fined anywhere near that amount. But every person in that court learnt a valuable lesson.
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