I don't get it -- Bottle Deposit Criminals

Can anyone explain the law behind this one? Exactly how is this illegal, and why is it “smuggling”?


It’s pretty much laid out for you in the article. They were attempting to redeem non-redeemable cans. The reason you get ten cents a can back for Michigan cans is that someone has paid that ten cents at point of sale. That is not true of cans from outside Michigan. It’s fraud. Defrauding the government usually gets you in trouble.

You can only (legally) return a can or bottle for deposit in the same state you bought it in. It’s a fund used for local environmental efforts, which these people illegally took half a million dollars out of.

Look at it this way - if you buy a can in Chicago, you’ve not paid in a nickel (or dime) deposit. You then take that can to Michigan and turn it in for five cents - but you never gave them the five cents to begin with. Deposits are just that - you pay the money out as part of the purchase price and you get it back when you return the item. If you didn’t pay the money in, then you’re taking money out of an account you never made a cash deposit into.

It’d be like someone forging a check for cash using my checking account number. They weren’t the ones who put the money in, and I didn’t give them permission to take it out.

Its fun when criminals get their ideas from Seinfeld reruns and think it is worth a shot.

OK, I get the basic idea here. Thanks for the ignorance fighting.

I see the point you’re trying to make here, but this strikes me as a particularly weak analogy. It’s not illegal for me to return a bottle for deposit that I didn’t pay for. Or is it? That is, the bums walking around collecting cans didn’t put money into the “account”, someone else did. The idea is that the account is at the state level, right?

Another question: Who exactly are these guys stealing from? Surely not the state, cause it got the money at the point of sale. They’re stealing from each individual person who paid the 10c, but didn’t redeem it. But in this sense, people steal money from other people all the time by redeeming found cans.

ETA: OK, clearly the point I missed initially is that, as Contrapuntal notes, these were non redeemable cans. On closer rereading it appears that they crushed the cans (presumably to obfuscate the fact that they were non redeemable) and redeemed them by weight. That’s very clearly fraud.

But that’s not the same as the Seinfeld scheme. That’s legal, right?

It doesn’t matter who put money into the system, it just matters that someone did. Those cans never had the full amount of the deposit paid in the first place so they were a double drain on the system first by not being bought in Michigan and, secondly being used to get more money out of the deposit refund system than was ever paid in the first place. It is fine to pick up cans beside the road and return them in the same state. The system is set up to encourage that in fact.

So in that episode, Newman and Kramer were actually criminals?

Next you’ll be saying you can’t use the homeless for rickshaws.

Yeah, the analogy is a little strained. The basic point is that money was put into an account for a particular can (or bottle)–the deposit is associated with the can, not the person. Anyone can redeem the money by turning in the can, but you can’t redeem money by turning in cans on which a deposit hasn’t been paid.

Yes the State. Why would you think otherwise?

They are stealing money from the state. The bottle wasn’t purchased in the state, so no-one paid the deposit. Theoretically, they could return more bottles and cans then were actually purchased in the state, and drive the deposit fund into the red - “returning” deposits which were never made.

The bums, one assumes, are picking up bottles and cans from Michigan streets, which were very likely purchased in Michigan, so yes, someone paid the deposit on them. If the bums are crossing state lines and collecting bottles and cans from another state and bringing them into Michigan for redemption, then that is illegal.

And yes, I agree that the checking account analogy is weak, but it’s the best I could come up with - essentially, you have to put money in (or someone else has to put money in) for you to legally and ethically take money out. It’s like a statewide checking account, but these guys were cashing out of state “checks” without putting in the funds to cover it.

OK, maybe y’all missed my edit a few posts up. I totally get (duh!) that in this case they were non-redeemable cans. Bingo – fraud. However, enlighten me about the more accurate Seinfeld scheme.

If I pick up a can on the street, which clearly lists CA, MA, ETC 5c, MI 10c. How do I know where the can was bought? How would anyone else know? How am I expected to know where it is legal to return it? If I buy my sodas in California and dump them in a trashcan in Detroit at the end of my road trip, am I setting some people to break the law?

Maybe, it’d depend on the wording of the law in the particular state. Technically, running a single stop sign on a deserted street at 3 am is a crime, too. Just because it’s easy to do and hard to catch doesn’t mean it’s legal.

But it seems obvious that these people were knowingly and willfully colluding to break the law. This isn’t a dozen coke cans you find shoved under your car seat during a road trip. This was a large scale operation which got them half a million dollars.

Intent is often part of illegality. Mens rea, I believe it’s called.

Yeah you have a point. It just seems like, even in the case of running a deserted stop sign, you are expect to know that it’s illegal even though it may not be enforced. I don’t see how you could be expected to know where a bottle comes from or where or how much was paid on it.

Yeah, in this case these guys ran grocery stores so they would know.

If you bought a soda at say, LAX, and placed it in a trash can in Michigan and the end of your trip, you would indeed be setting up someone to commit fraud. However, at least in this case there is a side benefit.
Back in the eighties I was in a “beer league” playing softball. If bottles or cans (purchased in Michigan) were left in the park, a few (generally elderly) men would patrol on their bicycles and return the empties for ten cents. Some of them would stand next to you while you finished your beverage. We considered it win for the environment (one never sees discarded containers in Michigan) and a “donation” to the collector, who was after all providing a service.

The cans in Michigan are labeled with “Michigan 10 cent refund” or similar wording for what it’s worth. The article said these folks were cashing them by weight – something I was not aware was allowed. Anyway, they are taking cans that aren’t labeled as refundable and presenting them as cans that are refundable. Sounds like fraud to me.

I have fond memories of being a Michigan child when they started the bottle refund law. You could actually get enough money for some good junk food just by collecting a few bottles :). It was always a drag to find a can and then see that it wasn’t labeled as refundable.

The telling point about these guys is that they deliberately obscured the markings, and got merchants to collude with them.

Now I did a similarly scheme legally, long before Seinfeld. In 1971 Coke 16 oz bottle deposits were 2 cents in Massachusetts where I went to school and five cents in New York, where I lived. Our dorm was across the river from the Coke bottling plant in Boston, so we got lots of cases delivered. When the Coke drivers went on strike a friend and I bought up all the cases of empties we could find in our college (over 200) rented a truck, and drove them to New York to return them at the bottling plant at 34th street. The Coke people in Boston were not happy, but we offered to sell them back at three cents a bottle, and they refused. It took a little bit of baksheesh, but my friend was on his way to becoming a politician, so it was good career training. :slight_smile: After deducting the cost of the truck, we split the profit three ways, 1/3 as a rebate to those who sold us the bottles, and one third each for the two of us. We didn’t make lots of money, but it was an excellent hack.

Having the same object given two different values in two different places just asks for things like our legal smuggling and the illegal smuggling in the OP.

You might want to look up the definition of fraud. Someone cannot unknowingly commit fraud.

Voyager: if you read what others are saying, what you did was illegal.

It’s been a while since I’ve bought anything in cans in Michigan, but I remember them being labeled like minor7flat5 said. A bunch of us used to spend a few weekends a year in Michigan, and while we were there we would usually end up buying a few six-packs. Part of our routine for these trips was making sure we stopped off at a store before we left to redeem our deposits. Invariably we’d have a few unopened cans which we would save after we drank them, then save the empties to be redeemed on our next trip.

To continue the checking account analogy: Money can legally be taken from your account by you, and also by someone to whom you give a check. If you write a check out to “Cash” then in general anyone who comes into legal possesion of it can legally withdraw money from your account.

But it’s illegal for someone to try to take money from your account by presenting a check that appears valid but isn’t.