Policing Fumes

You may have heard of a peculiar Belgian phenomenon: the GAS-fines. What are they exactly? Why do we have them? Are they a good or a bad thing? 

A gas-fine is a penalty, usually entailing a fine, imposed by a local government for minor infringements. GAS stands for ‘Gemeentelijke Administratieve Sanctie,’ (Local Administrative Sanction). It is an instrument in the fight against small public nuisances, like public urination. Recently, there has been much talk about the tightening of GAS-law. The Minister of Home Affairs, Joëlle Milquet, sent a general note to the local governments to make clear how the tightening of GAS-law should be interpreted. But the part of the announcement that attracted the most media coverage was that in some cases, due to their downright absurdity, GAS-fines should not have been imposed. 

The GAS-fines are imposed by local governments, so it is they that decide which nuisances to punish. Action groups made a list of the most ridiculous GAS-fines ever imposed. Here are some examples: in Hasselt, nobody has the right to wear masks on the street, except as Sinterklaas or the Easter Bunny.  In the little village of Merchtem, children aren’t allowed to play soccer when pigeon holders are having pigeon races, a popular sport in Belgium during which pigeons fly out and must return to their owners as quickly as possible. The sport is similar to horse racing: people bet on the pigeons and it is taken very seriously in some of the more rural areas in Belgium. And then there is the city of Sint-Niklaas, where it is prohibited to climb trees. The internet has endless lists with all kinds of weird GAS-fines. Because these fines are local, it is impossible to know what is prohibited where. This has understandably led to some frustration. 

With the approval of the first GAS-law, there was a rise in countless action groups. With slogans like “Let the children be children” and “There must be something wrong, boys,” these groups brought GAS-law to public’s attention, resulting in a lot of public commotion. On the one hand, parents of young children and teenagers are especially targeted when their child is being naughty. Many parents feel that their child should have the right to mess around freely and learn what is right and wrong from them rather than the police. On the other hand, for the elderly who seek peace and quiet, the GAS-fines are favorable.  Now that the new GAS-law prohibits imposing ridiculous GAS-fines, the public commotion has dimmed. But the phenomenon remains a typically Belgian one.

Kaatje Roelant