American society has long placed a special value on rising early for a hard day's work. But this is apparently not always the case in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, where a sanitation worker was sentenced to 30 days in jail for picking up the town's garbage before 7:00 AM and thus violating a local ordinance.
Last month, Kevin McGill thought he was simply going into court to pay a fine for his early-morning trash collecting. But he was soon face to face with a prosecutor and he quickly took a plea deal to prevent his case from going to trial. Before he knew it, a Sandy Springs judge had given McGill an entire month behind bars.
No other charge factored into the sentence—just the violation of a rule aimed at keeping garbage trucks from disturbing the morning peace
Today is McGill's 48th birthday. His wife was hoping for a big evening together. But instead, McGill will report to a Sandy Springs jail at 6:00 PM. (He is serving his time on the weekends so that he can continue working during the week.)
Before last month, McGill had never seen the inside of a jail cell.
"It was terrible—I didn't want to go in," McGill told me. "I didn't know what to expect, and when I got in it was worse than anything I could have imagined."
In addition to spending long weekends in jail, according to his lawyer, McGill will also spend six months on probation, during which time he will pay a set of monthly fees to the city.
Sandy Springs spokesperson Sharon Kraun says that early-morning garbage truck noise is not something the city will tolerate.
"Our residents, they like their quality of life," Kraun told me. "And that means not waking up at 5:00 AM to hear the trash can."
Sandy Springs has garnered attention in recent years for being on the cutting edge of privatizing nearly all aspects of municipal government. The city's trash collections are outsourced and, as the New York Timesnoted in 2012, it even privatized its entire municipal court system.
McGill's attorney Kimberly Bandoh says that when McGill arrived at the Sandy Springs court to plea two weeks ago, he had not prepared at all for the prospect of facing jail time. Before he could properly asses what was happening, she says, the judge handed down the month-long jail sentence.
"He didn't realize until he finished everything that you're actually going to have to go to jail for going to work early,"Brandoh told me. "You don't sentence a guy in jail for 30 days for picking up trash. It's egregious."
Bill Riley, the city prosecutor, emphasizes that McGill took a plea deal and both acknowledged his guilt and understood the harshness of the potential sentence.
"This was a negotiated plea," he said. "It was ultimately the judge's decision as to whether that was an appropriate sentence… I just made a recommendation, he didn't have to take it."
In the wake of a Department of Justice report that described how Ferguson targeted black residents and handed them harsh penalties for minor or manufactured violations, the topic of aggressive policing and prosecution has received a fresh dose of national attention—but Riley rejects the idea that McGill's punishment is excessive.
"We look for the minimum punishment what will deter the crime,"Riley said when asked whether the Department of Justice's report on Ferguson would make him second-guess his own office's treatment of cases like McGill's. "We tried forever not to put anyone in jail for these cases, but it wasn't working."
According to Kraun, McGill worked for Waste Management Inc., a publicly-traded company that cleared $14 billion dollars in revenue last year. Riley said that this is not the first time his office has penalized Waste Management personnel for violating the early-morning garbage collection law. But he asserts that in McGill's case, blame falls on the individual.
"We had meetings with the company and the company had actually done the things they were supposed to do,"Riley said. "They had trained him. They told him not to come here before seven."
Brandoh says that although McGill might have had some awareness of the Sandy Springs statute, he had been running that route for only three months. She adds that early-morning construction in the area gave him the sense that trash collection in the wee hours of the morning might also be permissible.
McGill has scheduled an emergency motion hearing for March 27 to attempt to invalidate his plea. But for the time being, he will have to continue spending less-than-restful weekends in a jail, where he struggles to sleep.
"It gets so hot it's unbearable,"McGill said. "I don't want to go back."
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