Hefty Civil Fines Against Fireworks That Work

By: 
Bill Pearl

On July 4th, in Lakewood (with roughly 80,000 residents), sheriff deputies issued 55 fireworks-related citations. During the same period, in Long Beach (with more than 472,000 residents) LBPD issued 13 fireworks-related citations.

The difference isn’t just in numbers. The two cities issue very different types of fireworks citations.

Lakewood issues non-criminal, civil citations. It applies “administrative enforcement” that carries hefty civil fines (that Lakewood increased in 2018 to sums that can exceed some criminal misdemeanors). The civil citations don’t require court trials, judges, prosecutors or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The person cited can dispute the citation in a civil hearing in which the city has an easier to meet standard of proof.

If the city prevails, the cited person can appeal in court.  If the court upholds the hearing and fine, the cited person pays the hefty civil fine or faces costly collection proceedings.

It’s not a panacea, but a number of area cities besides Lakewood use administrative enforcement. Lakewood has doing so for over ten years.  Long Beach doesn’t use administrative enforcement.

Long Beach’s 13 misdemeanor criminal citations each require the involvement of the city prosecutor’s office. Each misdemeanor requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt (unless the defendant pleads guilty.) Even with a conviction, the sentence depends on a court judge. Since misdemeanor jail time in L.A. County is nearly non-existent, the result may be a fine (in an amount less than administrative enforcement.)

In Lakewood, ground based (“safe and sane”) fireworks aren’t illegal so sheriff deputies only cite persons igniting the most dangerous mortar launched rockets and explosive bombs. In contrast in Long Beach, where all fireworks including ground-based “safe and sane” are illegal, some LBPD units simply drove by visibly illegal fireworks without citing anyone. In LBPD’s North Division, one such non-response (to a ground based “fountain”) was captured on video [screen save below.]

The reason Long Beach doesn’t have administrative enforcement in place is because the Long Beach City Council hasn’t directed city management to implement it … yet. The issue came up in 2018 when the council requested a city management report on the matter.

On March 15, 2019, city management sent a memo to the mayor and City Council, citing reasons for not recommending use of administrative enforcement

Management’s memo estimated LB’s daily cost to implement all of the methods would include $35,000 to deploy LBPD officers and LBFD arson investigators plus $40,000 to purchase two special law enforcement drones. Estimated long-term costs would include another deputy city attorney position ($210,000) plus a minimum of 300 hours of administrative code enforcement work ($19,500, to review video evidence and process administrative appeals), plus a hearing officer on appeals at $150 per case.

The memo also said using city staff represented by employee unions would require meet-and-confer proceedings under the Meyers-Milias Brown Act.

The memo concluded: “Due to the legal and safety concerns involved, coupled with anticipated large costs, it is not recommended that the city implement an administrative citation process. Instead, it is recommended that the city manager’s office explore the feasibility with the city prosecutor’s office of implementing a system or process of where the public may report the illegal use of fireworks…”

No current Long Beach Council members challenged management’s reasoning. How are other cities able to do what Long Beach resists doing? One reason, acknowledged in management’s memo, has nothing to do with the merits. Long Beach City Hall has to deal with public employee unions.  In contrast, Lakewood is run basically with contracted services.

By May 2020, with fireworks scofflaws launching mortar rounds and detonating explosives in multiple neighborhoods, residents created a “Long Beach Against Illegal Fireworks” Facebook page with comments refusing to accept City Hall’s previous rationalizations for inaction.

On June 23 Councilman Al Austin, joined by Councilmembers Mary Zendejas, Rex Richardson and Vice Mayor Dee Andrews agendized a multi-part council item that directed city management to explore applying seven new measures. One of those measures was: “Request city attorney and city manager to report back to the City Council on the feasibility of including an administrative citation process for illegal fireworks use, to allow for additional enforcement capability in Long Beach.”

This came too late to affect what happened on July 4, 2020. Whether this option is applied in the future depends on a City Council majority.

Bill Pearl publishes lbreport.com, an online news source since 2000.

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Comments

This is a fabulous, informative, well researched article! Unlike some other local news sources that have not covered this topic as thoroughly or accurately. Beachcomber is quickly becoming a favorite of mine!

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