Several San Jose residents say the city's fire department too loosely hands out hefty fines for setting off fireworks.
They asked NBC Bay Area Responds to help them contest the system that issues fines — sometimes with little or no evidence.
The residents say they were mailed $500 citations without anyone visiting them to verify the allegation.
“Not a single one,” said Garrison Circle resident Daniel Alvord. “No one at all.”
These citations originated online. The city lets anyone report fireworks violations, anonymously, using an internet page.
By phone last week, Fire Marshal Ivan Lee told NBC Bay Area that some complaints might contain evidence like video or photos. But others can be pure hearsay.
Several Garrison Circle residents — who all received citations that they dispute — said the fire marshal told them the same thing.
“As Lee said, if there’s more than one complaint, they don’t need any evidence to make you guilty of the crime,” Alvord said.
We took the residents’ concerns to City Hall.
“I don’t like hearsay being used,” said councilmember Johnny Khamis.
Khamis said he voted to ratchet up San Jose’s fireworks enforcement because the city sometimes looks like “a war zone.” But said that he did not intend for people to be fined based on hearsay alone.
“The council intended to have evidence-based citations,” he said.
So, what happened? Gray area.
The city’s fireworks ordinance doesn’t specifically lay out how reports should be handled or standards for when the fire marshal should issue a $500 citation.
“It’s the way he interpreted what we said,” Khamis said.
We asked Khamis if the fire marshal properly interpreted the code.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “People may have different interpretations. What I would recommend in the future is that they look at more picture or video based evidence and then send it with the citation itself as proof.”
Lee declined NBC Bay Area's request for interview.
Instead, the city’s spokesperson told us each citation based on hearsay is “evaluated” by staff. We asked what that evaluation entails.
“I can’t really speak to that,” said spokesperson Cheryl Wessling.
We asked again: What did the city do in between receiving the complaint and sending the citation?
She replied, “I’m going to tell you one more time: I can’t exactly answer that question.”
But, last week, Lee did.
He told NBC Bay Area that all he needed to issue a $500 citation was more than one report — even if it’s just hearsay — pointing to one address.
“So, we’ll have to go back and verify that with the fire marshal,” Wessling said. "I can’t say how many times that happened or even if that happened at all.”
Wessling said that scenario was possible. We then asked if it was fair.
“We’re going to ask that question, certainly, as we evaluate the process,” she said.
NBC Bay Area has asked to see the full database of complaints.
For now, San Jose officials are only sharing that there were 1,055 online submissions and 45 citations issued. They did not specify how many were based on hearsay alone.
The residents of Garrison Circle are frustrated with the process. They’re now required to pay to $500 fine up front, then contest the citation at a hearing.
“It’s infuriating,” said resident Amy Guzules. “I’m trying to find out if anything can be done before I get down into the hearing and find myself guilty of something I that didn’t do, my $500 is gone, and I have no recourse."
Khamis said emergency relief for those $500 fines is possible.
That topic, as well as a discussion about how to tweak the fireworks law are expected during the City Council’s meeting on Aug. 8.