San Jose

Unfair? Residents Never See a Cop, But Get $500 Fine Anyway

Several South San Jose citizens are at odds with an unusual foe: the fire department. The residents say they are on the hook for hundreds of dollars each for something they didn’t do: fireworks.

San Jose banned fireworks use. And the city’s gotten aggressive.

But the people who called NBC Bay Area Responds say the city automated its process for taking fireworks complaints and that streamlined system has left them wrongfully accused.

“Apparently, on the Fourth of July I was setting off fireworks,” said Garrison Circle resident Daniel Alvord. Alvord was one of three people on this small street to receive yellow notices by mail that fined them $500 for alleged illegal use of fireworks.

So, had he shot of fireworks in violation of city code?

“Absolutely not,” Alvord insisted.

Across the street, longtime resident Amy Guzules find herself in the same boat. Her citation accused her of shooting of pyrotechnics in June.

“Oh gosh, I haven’t touched fireworks in probably 30 years,” she said.

The letters were a shock here, especially since everyone on Garrison Circle says the $500 citation arrived without any prior contact from anyone in law enforcement.

Not a firefighter, not a police officer, not a code enforcement officer.

“Not a single one,” Alvord said.  

The Garrison group got nowhere challenging fire department brass, so they asked us to figure out how these citations came about. The answer: online.

San Jose recently rolled out an internet form that allows anyone to report illegal fireworks use.

NBC Bay Area has learned that when an address is reported here more than once, a $500 citation is automatically issued by mail -- with zero investigation.

“Wouldn’t you want to come out and investigate yourself instead of taking someone else’s word for it,” Alvord asked.

Residents may appeal and possibly face their anonymous accuser at a future hearing. But, they’re required to pay the $500 fine upfront, with no guarantee they’ll get it back.

“The person who accused me doesn’t have to have photo or video proof that I did anything,” Amy Guzules complained. “That’s ridiculous.”

The city council approved this enforcement system last year.

We contacted all 10 current city council members as well as the mayor, but did not immediately hear back from any of them.

The fire marshal signs the citations. He declined our interview request.

By phone, he said he doesn’t have enough personnel to investigate every fireworks complaint -- that’s why the city added a web form that automatically sends $500 citations.

We wanted to know how many citations went out without investigation. He said he didn’t know.

We also asked if the Garrison Circle residents’ fines will be reconsidered. He said they have to appeal -- after first paying the $500 fine first.

The clock is ticking. If fines aren’t paid within 30 days, the city will add a late fee and interest.

The frustrated people of Garrison Circle call this system flawed.

“Tomorrow, I could get another citation because somebody decided to put my address in the reporting form,” Amy Guzules said. “So, I could spent a lot of time doing this over and over and over again.”

We asked a Santa Clara University law professor about this online form and how it triggers automatic fines. She raised due process questions, and encouraged residents to challenge the city to change its policy.

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