Regarding the merciless plague of pedestrian tickets in downtown Los Angeles, 17,000 and counting in four years, the people have spoken.
Hundreds of readers responded to my column about 22-year-old Glendale Community College student-athlete Eduardo Lopez, who was on his way to school when he got smacked with a $197 ticket for entering a crosswalk after the flashing countdown had begun. And roughly nine out of 10 of those readers criticized the ticket-writing spree, blasted the exorbitant fees or offered to pay all or part of Eduardo's ticket.
"It's outrageous that the fine … is $197," wrote a Granada Hills reader who offered to cover the ticket cost. "I just retired from a job in Century City, where the cops could write a small fortune in tickets for people who routinely cross the intersection of Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Blvd. while the red light is still flashing. But there is never any police presence there, except when they're escorting the President on one of his periodic visits."
This saga began with an April 24 story by Times reporter Catherine Saillant, who saw Eduardo and seven others get ticketed by an LAPD motorcycle officer near the 7th Street Metro station over a two-hour period. Downtown Los Angeles has been transformed into an urban village of pedestrians, and police have been picking them off one by one, writing tickets for entering a crosswalk after the red light flashes and the countdown begins.
I didn't know that was illegal. Neither did Eduardo Lopez, and neither did Councilman Mike Bonin.
"No I didn't, and I'm sure I have been a serial offender," Bonin said. Last week, he and Councilman Jose Huizar asked for a report on whether such a crackdown makes pedestrians any safer, and whether motorists — rather than pedestrians — are more responsible for accidents.
Sure, Bonin said, some pedestrians blatantly break the law, impede traffic and deserve tickets. But many others think, as I did, that the countdown is there to tell you how much time you have to cross the street. He said he would support any state effort to clarify the law and reduce fines that have "a long-term punitive effect" on "a large segment of our population."
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys, who recently introduced a bill to restore suspended driver's licenses for those who can't afford exorbitant ticket fees and penalties, told me he would consider future legislation to reduce those charges.
"This is kind of government run amok, right?" said Hertzberg, who blasted lawmakers for packing "artificial" surcharges onto tickets instead of doing the work of honestly balancing budgets.
He cited a recent report by several civil rights groups that outlined how citations push people deeper into poverty and result in suspended licenses. More than 4 million Californians have had their licenses suspended.
To understand just how ridiculous the add-on fees are, let's take a look at Eduardo Lopez's $197 ticket for violating Section 21456(b) of the California Vehicle Code.
Any idea what the base fine is?
So how does the tab grow to nearly eight times that amount?
Think of it as a mugging — a gang mugging, in which everybody sticks a hand in one of your pockets while the cop writes that ticket. The state gets a piece of you, the county takes a cut, the city wants its share.
And now you're paying surcharges and penalties for things like court construction, a DNA Identification Fund and emergency medical services. It's $30 for this, $10 for that, and in the end you're lucky they didn't take your trousers too.
The $197 is double what it was a decade ago, and if you look up "uniform bail and penalty schedule" for California, you'll see similar surcharges and penalties for other infractions.
When I wrote that Eduardo Lopez's fine was out of proportion to the crime, and suggested there ought to be some discretion based on ability to pay, that didn't sit well with several readers. Even though Eduardo is trying his best to eventually lift his mother and siblings out of a tough South L.A. neighborhood by working hard and getting an education, they said the same penalties should apply to everyone.
I might be more amenable to that "equal justice for all" argument if the system itself were fair. One small piece of evidence that it's not: A downtown resident videotaped Eduardo getting the ticket, and in that video, a man in a business suit walks across the same intersection just one second ahead of Eduardo, committing the same infraction. The cop zooms past the businessman to single out Eduardo, and I'm still waiting on an explanation from the LAPD.
Although some readers came down on Eduardo, and me, others pointed out a New York Times story on a sliding fee schedule in Finland, where a millionaire businessman got caught speeding and was hit with a $58,000 ticket. That's not the way to do it, if you ask me, although we could probably repair half the nation's bridges and roads if Bill Gates got caught going 90 on an interstate.
But I'd go for a descending scale, in which a guy like Eduardo — who had just gotten off a graveyard shift at his minimum wage job before racing to school by train and bus the day he got popped — would pay only the base fine of $25.
As a matter of fact, judges do have leeway and can order community service instead of imposing fines
"Judges have the discretion under state law to reduce the bail amount if they believe the person is indigent," said attorney Mike Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "Unfortunately most clients don't know how to plead this in court."
Herald said the courts get a sizable chunk of the money collected from citations, "so there's an incentive on the judges to be tax collectors, which kind of warps their role."
The whole system is warped, and here's hoping that Councilmen Bonin and Huizar, along with Sen. Hertzberg, can get government off our backs and on our side, as Bonin put it.
As for Eduardo Lopez, he is grateful for the generosity of readers who have helped not just with the ticket, but with his rent, too. He's still in a hurry, with his focus back to school and soccer, but he's stepping a little more carefully these days in downtown L.A.