Nikolaj Grinenko walks daily through his neighborhood, often picking up bottles and cans he finds in a park near his home. He says he likes to help keep his neighborhood clean.
It never occurred to Grinenko that what he was doing could be construed as controversial, let alone unlawful.
"I always clean . . . I like to clean," the 70-year-old retiree said. "It's my policy."
But while making his rounds at 6:30 a.m. one day last week, Grinenko, carrying a shopping bag full of bottles and aluminum cans, found himself trying to convince an Irvine police officer that he wasn't a criminal.
"He said, 'You're under arrest,' " Grinenko recalled. "I said, 'You're kidding me.' They gave me a ticket and took my bottles and cans."
As it turned out, according to police, Grinenko apparently was the unwitting victim of a Police Department memo urging tougher enforcement of a city ordinance outlawing unauthorized removal of recyclable materials from curbside trash bins. The recyclables are separated from other trash and placed in bins for weekly collection.
But the theft of recyclables has become a problem, according to Irvine Police Commander Jim Blaylock. Thus the crackdown.
However, in the "interest of justice" the department is seeking to dismiss the case against Grinenko, Blaylock said.
"I don't think he's a professional can thief," Blaylock said. "We don't want the gas chamber."
The case of the "purloined" recyclables began March 5 as Grinenko walked along Yale Avenue with a bag of bottles and cans he had collected at a nearby park.
A police officer apparently mistook Grinenko for one of the scavengers who loot the recycling bins, Blaylock said. Grinenko was then cited by the officer on suspicion of "transporting trash from one location to another," according to Grinenko's attorney, Ray Hendrickson.
"I think it's really silly," Hendrickson said. "It's just the kind of thing that happens when people get overzealous. If people think they're going to get arrested for picking up trash, do you think they'll do it? I dare say not."
Hendrickson added that because the charge against his client was a misdemeanor, police would have had to see him commit the crime.
"Is possessing trash a jailable offense in Irvine?" Hendrickson asked. "Is trash contraband?"
Ironically, Grinenko, who worked for a paper box company for 31 years in various posts, said he had planned to donate the bottles hto the city. The aluminum cans, he said, were to go to the Disabled American Veterans.
Had the city pursued its case against Grinenko, he could have faced a maximum $1,000 fine, six months in jail or both, Hendrickson said.
Grinenko seemed undaunted by his experience.
"If I see a bottle," he said, "I pick it up."