For a long time, misdemeanors were all too easy to come by in Santa Monica.
The city’s code required police to dole them out for every violation, even for seemingly minor infractions like riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Offenders were then required to appear in court, where they could be fined up to $1,000 and or sentenced to jail time of up to one year.
One sidewalk cyclist who was slapped with a misdemeanor this year complained to the City Council that such punishment was disproportionately harsh.
The council listened — something the cyclist may come to regret.
Last week council members passed a new ordinance that aims to make the penalties for minor code violations less harsh. At the same time it increases the odds of getting caught.
People cited for sidewalk-cycling, loitering in public parking garages, or leaving belongings unattended on city property may now be issued tickets instead of court dates — with the option to pay a $250 fee online or by mail.
But the ordinance also empowers a large number of city employees to enforce it. Citations can be handed out not just by police, as in the old days, but by license inspectors, animal service officers and employees in public works and code enforcement.
Officials hope the change will boost city revenue and relieve the burden on the city’s criminal prosecutors, who previously spent a lot of time handling the cases in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
“Now we don’t have to have an attorney take time to go to court,” said Roger Rees, a deputy city attorney. “With the ease of payment, the hope is that more people will just pay the fine.”
Officials in Los Angeles also have turned to parking and traffic violations to help replenish city coffers. The ticket for an expired meter in Los Angeles jumped from $40 in 2008 to about $50 last year, and “fix-it” tickets for minor moving violations such as broken taillights more than doubled.
It is legal to bicycle on the sidewalk in Los Angeles, but it is illegal to do so in business districts in Beverly Hills and Glendale, and in all unincorporated parts of L.A. County.