Struggling student a victim of high fines and misdemeanors

So, finally, we've got a thriving downtown with thousands of people on foot, and we're penalizing it?

Eduardo Lopez, 22, has not caught many breaks in his young life. If anything, that's made him more determined to succeed.

The all-star soccer player wants to finish college, he wants to be a firefighter, and he wants to help get his family out of the hole it's been in from the day he was born.

That means he's always on the go, and on a recent morning, Lopez was really in a hurry. He had worked a minimum-wage graveyard shift loading pallets for an export company near LAX, then jumped a Green Line train and transferred to the Blue Line.

At the Metro station downtown, he hustled up to street level and saw his bus approaching 7th and Hope streets. If he caught it, he'd make it to his first class at Glendale Community College on time. He hadn't slept in 24 hours, but he had to get to school.

No problem, he thought. The "don't walk" sign was blinking. The countdown was at 10 seconds, as he recalls, giving him plenty of time.

My colleague, reporter Catherine Saillant, happened to be there that day. You may have seen her story about the thousands of crosswalk citations police have written in downtown Los Angeles, where the population has exploded in recent years, creating a fish-in-a-barrel opportunity for cops.

Saillant watched a motorcycle officer zoom across the intersection and write Lopez a ticket for violating Section 21456(b) of the California Vehicle Code, which says you can't begin to cross the street once the "do not cross" sign begins flashing.

In four years, Saillant reported, 17,075 people had been cited for the same infraction in the downtown sector, or four times as many as any other area over that period.

So, finally, we've got a thriving downtown with thousands of people on foot in a car-choked city, and instead of celebrating that, we're penalizing it?

Yeah, sure, police have to keep traffic flowing and prevent vehicle-pedestrian accidents and deaths. But where's the overzealous enforcement when it comes to going after the countless drivers who selfishly clog intersections, creeping out and then turning long after a light has turned red?

To be honest, I didn't know the law on a flashing "don't walk" sign, so I'm lucky I haven't gotten nailed. I thought you could cross if you could make it before the clock counted down to zero, and Eduardo Lopez was under the same impression.

"I have the right to walk," he said to Officer Robert Lockhart, as captured on video by Saillant.

"You do not," the officer said in a testy exchange.

The officer said he had warned Lopez not to cross: Lopez says he didn't hear that. He tried to plead his case, but that didn't sit well with the cop, who pulled out his ticket pad.

I spent time with Lopez, and for me, hearing more about why he was in a hurry points to a basic inequity in the way we enforce some laws.

Eduardo and his brother Miguel, 25, live with their mother and two younger sisters in a one-bedroom apartment near Avalon Boulevard and Vernon Avenue, next door to a gas station. The three females share a one bedroom, and the brothers share the other, the rooms separated by a tiny kitchen.

Lopez's mother cleans houses, and his brother works at the same warehouse where Eduardo catches shifts now and then. The brothers, who have grown up without a father, have been scheming for years to work toward a day when they can move the entire family to a safer neighborhood. Crime is all around them, Eduardo said, and the stress from feeling unsafe is constant.

"My mother is my role model. She will do whatever she can for us, but I have caught her sad and depressed, and it breaks my heart," said Eduardo.

"For me and Eduardo, it's an obligation — to carry the family on and prosper, and to be an example for our younger sisters," said Miguel, who is in training to be a financial consultant.

When he was in fourth grade, Eduardo told me, a firefighter from the Los Angeles Fire Department visited his class to talk about his job. That's it, thought Eduardo. That's what he wanted to be when he grew up.

As he got older, Eduardo watched friends go the wrong way, and he found safety and purpose in youth soccer. He played for hours in the nearby park and on club teams, jogged to and around the USC campus in the evenings and became good enough to believe he might one day get an athletic scholarship to a four-year college, where he can study fire science.

The plan seems to be working. Eduardo made first-team All-Western Conference last season at Glendale college, and he's hoping coaches at four-year colleges noticed.

Of course, Officer Friendly didn't know all that when he wrote him the ticket, and it probably wouldn't have mattered. The law's the law and all.

Lopez was guessing his troubles would cost him $80 or $90, which would have been bad enough. But he was off by a mile.

It was a $197 whack.

"I was in shock," said Lopez, who wondered again why the officer couldn't have given him a warning instead of a ticket that's nearly one-third of his family's monthly rent, which he contributes to. "I didn't know how I was going to pay for it or what I was going to do."

Ticket prices have shot up in California and elsewhere, and as we've seen in national headlines, fanatical enforcement is often a means of filling budget gaps. But $197 for what Lopez did is ridiculously punitive, and entirely out of proportion to the infraction.

In Saillant's story, she said Lopez was one of eight pedestrians cited by the same officer in two hours. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that some of the eight were low-income like Lopez, some were middle-income, and some were rolling in dough.

In that scenario, a $500,000-a-year broker pays the same penalty as a struggling student. But it's chump change to one, and a month of groceries for the other.

It's the equivalent of an added tax for the crime of being poor. Sorry, young man, but you'll have to pay a far higher percentage of your income than the rich guy.

The system should have a little more discretion built into it, maybe even a sliding scale based on ability to pay.

Eduardo had to take time out of another busy day to go to court and ask if he could pay off his debt by doing community work. No, he was told. He has until April 27 to pay up, unless he tries to fight it, with no guarantees except that he'd eat up more of his valuable time.

He could turn to his older brother, Eduardo told me, but asking him for help is a last resort. The rent is coming due, and Miguel has to cover the bulk of the $712 payment, even as he's saving to buy his first used car.

Fortunately for Eduardo, two readers who saw Saillant's story offered to help Lopez out.

"It tugged on my heart that this sum could be a hardship for a student," wrote one.

A grateful Lopez, who has saved $45 so far toward the ticket, has been in touch with both readers. He was checking his mail last week, hoping they might be able to help him before his bill comes due.

It's because Eduardo is such a hustler that he got that ticket, which slowed him a bit. But it won't stop him.

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