The dairy industry loses and must replace about 20 million milk crates per year, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, which has a whole website set up to warn against the theft and misuse of the plastic containers.
They have an obvious and legitimate interest in trying to stop criminal enterprises that snatch these containers by the truckload and take them to recycling centers for the cash. Police in southern Florida broke up a ring in April that had stolen more than $1.5 million worth of crates. Crates are all stamped with the name of the dairy that owns them and it's illegal under various state laws for individuals to keep them in their possession, laws of which few Americans are likely aware.
Though these laws are ostensibly for the purpose of fighting theft rings, they're also handy tools for police to harass poor undesirables and anybody who has to scrounge whatever they find to get by. So Timothy Troller of Auburndale, Florida, ended up in a jail cell entirely because he had a milk crate attached to his bicycle.
Did he steal the crate? Probably not. Troller said he found it on the side of the road. The Polk County Sheriff's Department doesn't care. From WFLA:
"You're possessing something that is stolen from a business, whether it's as small as a milk crate, or a shopping cart," Polk County Sheriff's Office Spokesperson, Carrie Horstman said. "He was charged with possessing stolen property. He may pay a fine or spend a few days in jail."
"Deputies are actually out there proactively looking for things that don't look right; looking for suspicious things. If they see somebody riding a bicycle at 10 o'clock at night they may have a conversation with them. They are looking for people who are doing even the smallest crime, because, what we've learned is, those who will go out an steal a milk crate, for example, are the same people who are probably breaking into cars, breaking into your house," Horstman said.
Troller's family does note that he has a criminal record, which is supposed to justify such terrible treatment, the way Horstman talks about it. Horstman represents the kind of police attitude that makes it harder and harder for those who have criminal pasts to ever recover. Stealing a milk crate is the gateway drug to breaking into somebody's house.
If it makes Troller feel any better, he's not the only poor schmo who has had this law used against him for being in the possession of a single milk crate, not for being part of some organized criminal recycling enterprise. Last year, also in Florida, a 30-year-old homeless man was arrested after being found sitting outside a grocery store on a milk crate begging for money. Police said at the time the charge of possessing a milk crate was used "whenever appropriate." A news story noted he was held without bail.
And the harassment of those who sit on milk crates was also part of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to clean up the city. Back in 2003, as part of the city's Operation Impact, a young man in the Bronx was handed a summons when police found him sitting on a milk crate in public. An administrative judge told the New York Daily News at the time that she had never heard of such a law against "unauthorized use" of a milk crate herself. Even the police union back at the time complained that they were being pushed to write these citations as a way of bringing in money for the city.
Read more about Troller's predicament and watch the news segment here.