Scourge of Youngtown

On the morning of July 1, Al and Letha Lindsey settled into what they thought would be an uneventful, routine day at their small house in Youngtown.

Al, 79, a retired insurance claims adjuster who suffers from emphysema and congestive heart failure, took a hit of oxygen from the machine in the bedroom and took a seat on the living room couch. Letha, 78, a retired See's Candy clerk, plopped herself in the Barcalounger and debated whether to finish painting the kitchen cabinets.

The Lindseys prided themselves in maintaining their home. Letha took care of the inside, and Al handled the landscaping. When he had been healthier, he'd planted fruit trees and laid gravel in the front yard. After he got sick, he paid a man to trim the trees and pull weeds. He figured that even on their limited social-security income, it was worth paying someone to keep the place up.

On the July morning in question, the landscaper had just cleaned up the place.

It was a typical, stifling summer morning, but the Lindseys' trusty evaporative cooler kept the interior of their home comfortable.

Then Al and Letha noticed a Youngtown police officer standing on their front porch.

Al, who had always greatly admired police officers for their courage and rectitude, opened the front door and asked if he could be of any help.

He was stunned when the Youngtown officer said he was there to charge Al with a criminal offense--littering.

Al had violated the town code by "failing to maintain" his property, the officer said. Specifically, a patch of grass had sprouted beneath the dripping evaporative cooler on one side of the house. The officer noted that grass in the center of the patch exceeded the six-inch height limit proscribed in the Youngtown municipal code. According to that code, any grass blade over six inches in height is considered litter.

Al explained that his health wasn't so good and he didn't get outside much but that he'd just paid a fellow to clean up the yard. He said neither he nor the landscaper had noticed the patch of grass on the side of his house under the cooler.

But instead of doing the decent--and perfectly legal-- thing, which would have been to give Al a break and ask him to clip the grass to avoid a future citation, the Youngtown officer slapped Al with the criminal charge.

Al's son-in-law came by later that day and measured the grass patch--it was approximately 18 inches by 30 inches in size. Then he took a picture of the offensive grass for the record and clipped the grass down to conform to the town code.

But it wasn't over.
In the days that followed, Al noticed a couple of times that a Youngtown police car was parked across the street from his house. He began to fret that the cops were staking out his house. Were they watching the grass grow?

He became despondent. He wondered how anyone could accuse him of being a criminal after he had tried so hard to respect the law all his life. In his 79 years, he says, he's never even received a single traffic ticket.

And he asked himself why he and Letha had decided to retire in Youngtown, which bills itself as the nation's first municipality designed exclusively for retirees. They'd chosen the west-side town in 1983 because the small tract homes were inexpensive. The Lindseys didn't mind Youngtown's cookie-cutter neighborhoods, and they figured since the townsfolk were law-abiding retirees, the community would be relatively crime-free. They approved of town laws that prohibited the young from living in Youngtown. They worried about an increase in crime when the Arizona Attorney General's Office determined in June 1998 that the town of about 3,000 could not legally prohibit permanent residents under the age of 18.

But shortly after Al was cited with littering, he decided that the real threat wasn't from unruly kids. He learned that he had been part of a sweep sanctioned by town fathers. About 150 Youngtown residents had been cited for having messy yards. Al began to suspect that the sweep was conducted just so Youngtown, which does not benefit from property taxes, could get a little extra income. After all, Youngtown municipal government was known to operate on a shoestring.

Youngtown's leaders said the sweep was necessary because people were complaining that the town looked shabby.

But had town leaders really intended to improve Youngtown's appearance, or were they padding the budget by preying on old people?

"That's crazy," says Youngtown's attorney, David Ledyard, when the question is put to him.

Although he could give no exact figures, he says expenses from the "cleanup campaign" exceeded the income from the fines. It may be that Ledyard himself, who was paid $90 per hour for prosecuting the residents, accounted for the biggest expense.

Ledyard says most Youngtown oldsters caught in the dragnet were more compliant than Al Lindsey, and paid reduced fines because they admitted their guilt before their cases went to trial. Their charges were dropped, he says.

Ledyard says Al was offered the deal, too; but Al was stubborn and demanded his day in court.

Al pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in August.
By this time, his outlook wasn't any brighter. He'd learned that town code allowed the judge to fine him up to $300 if even one blade of grass grew over six inches tall in his yard, and he and Letha had no savings.

Their monthly income totals about $1,000.
Al had also discovered that he could lose his driver's license or get arrested if he didn't pay the fine.

In late October, Al hobbled into the Youngtown city court for his trial. He had no lawyer, but he had faith in the American legal system.

Al gave presiding judge Lex Anderson the photograph that his son-in-law had taken of the small patch of grass on the day Al was charged with the crime of littering.

Town attorney David Ledyard told the judge the photo was inadmissible, and the judge agreed. Al hadn't followed proper legal procedure of notifying the city that he would introduce such evidence before the trial, Ledyard said. Al claims the judge got a glimpse of the photo anyway, and winced at the sight of the tiny patch of grass.

Then Al did what he's done all his life--he told the truth. He testified that he'd measured the grass and a few blades did indeed exceed six inches, but he explained that the patch was small and that he'd clipped it down the same day he'd received his citation.

He said he wasn't a criminal.
He asked the judge for mercy.
He got less than he expected.

The judge reduced the original fine but told Al he still had to pay $120. He found Al guilty of a criminal misdemeanor charge.

Al immediately paid $10, which was all he could afford that day. He and Letha might live hand-to-mouth, but they always pay every penny they owe. They figured they'd just send the court more money when they had it. They didn't realize they had to arrange a payment schedule with the court.

But what troubled Al more than the fine was the fact that, technically, he was now a criminal. His pride was badly wounded, and he fell into a funk.

"It bothered me because I'd never had any legal problems before," Al says.
In their 59 years of marriage, Letha had never seen Al so blue.
"I told Al not to worry about it so much, it was all so foolish," she says. "But he would say it wasn't foolish if we didn't have the money to pay the court."

Sometimes, Letha would escape by pretending she needed to buy groceries. She'd wander the aisles of Safeway just to get away from Al.

One day in November Letha found Al unconscious on the bathroom floor. His heart was failing, and he underwent emergency heart surgery.

Shortly after he returned home from the hospital, Al received a letter from the Youngtown municipal court. The court fined him an additional $45 for not paying the original fine in full. Now he owes $155. If he doesn't pay the entire fine before New Year's, a warrant could be issued for Al's arrest.

"I didn't pay right away because I didn't have the money," says Al, explaining that he's also got some expenses related to his heart surgery.

"I keep thinking maybe they'll lay off me and drop this thing because of the ridiculousness of the situation."

But then reality sets in. He begins to mull over the sweep sanctioned by the town, the absurdity and injustice of his conviction, and he finds himself peering out the window to see if a policeman is parked outside, on the lookout for rogue grass.

So Al Lindsey, criminal, goes into the bedroom for a whiff of oxygen, and tries to calm down.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at [email protected]

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Terry Greene Sterling