The dispute is simple.
“I think the city really should back off,” San Jose-resident Amy Guzules said.
Several South San Jose residents are frustrated because they were each fined $500 for using fireworks even though they say no one in authority confronted them with the accusation.
No police officers, no code enforcement officers, and no one else from the city.
“Not one,” resident Daniel Alvord said.
So, why did the city mail these bright yellow citations here? Someone complained online -- perhaps anonymously.
The city collected fireworks complaints via an Internet form. By phone, Fire Marshal Ivan Lee told us he doesn’t have the manpower to investigate every online accusation, so if one address got more than one complaint he fined them – without any investigation.
“As Lee said, if there’s more than one complaint, they don’t need any evidence to make you guilty of the crime,” Alvord explained.
MURKY ONLINE ACCUSATIONS
We reviewed the city’s full database of fireworks complaints. Some included video or photo evidence -- and triggered a fine. Others included detailed statements -- and triggered a fine. But several lacked detail -- yet still triggered a fine.
For example, five accusers didn’t give an address, just a block. The city issued a citation anyway. The city hasn't explained how it chose the address.
Two complaints included just one word, yet resulted in fines. In one the complaint simply said “fireworks.” The city says some accusers might have gotten follow-up phone calls, but it’s not clear how many.
The complaint that caused Guzules’ fine contains three words: “several high fireworks.”
We asked her when she last had set off fireworks.
“Oh gosh, I haven’t touched fireworks in probably 30 years,” she said – and chuckled.
Guzules’ citation doesn’t lay out any evidence against her. She says the fire marshal told her more than one report against an address triggered a $500 fine.
“I am automatically guilty and they keep the $500,” she said.
We found Guzules' address in the complaint database only once. So, we want to know why she was cited. But the city refused to address individual cases with us. It says people like Guzules will just have to pay the $500 fine and request a hearing to see the evidence.
LEGAL SCHOLAR'S TAKE
David Levine, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law expressed concerns.
“I think they ought to talk to some lawyers about the validity of that system,” he said.
Levine says limited city resources do not justify shortcuts like accepting two complaints as gospel and not contacting the accused.
“Make some attempt to talk to the person who was allegedly using the fireworks or was permitting fireworks to be on their premises,” he said. “At least do that. A few phone calls are not that expensive. They’re not time consuming.”
San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle acknowledged potential missteps. He told us over the phone that the city is re-evaluating how fireworks complaints are handled.
“There may be some problems with some of these citations,” he said.
Doyle said the issue is front and center, and “I think there are some lessons to be learned.”
We’re told a report is coming. But, in the meantime, residents are still required to pay the $500 fine before they can challenge the citation.
“You can’t prove a negative,” Guzules said, exasperated. “I can’t prove I didn’t set off any fireworks.”
This is not the first time the city of San Jose has faced scrutiny for streamlining law enforcement. Trial attorney Jim McManis filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of San Jose about 10 years ago after it deployed unmarked vans to snap photos of suspected speeders -- who later got tickets in the mail. The case did not go to trial, but the city did halt the program.
McManis seems similarities in the streamline fireworks fines.
“This is just another gimmick on the part of the city of San Jose to raise money,” he said. McManis sees similarities in today’s fireworks fines. “If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to do it right. You’ve got to respect the basic principles of our democracy, which is you should be able to know who your accusers are, what is the nature of the accusation, and be able to have a hearing in front of an impartial officer and not have to pay an arm and a leg for it.”
PLEA FOR HELP
The people who contacted us about their $500 fireworks fines are urging the San Jose city council to address their concerns at its next meeting, August 8. Guzules is especially eager. Her fine is due five days later.
Nothing is on the agenda as of yet.
One final note: the online form that started all this is no longer taking complaints. It’s closed. A city spokesperson says staff had previously planned to shut it down after the Fourth of July.