Monday, September 28, 2009

Illegal To Ride, Santa Monica Outlaws Riding Unlicensed Bicycles.

Santa Monica Critical Mass December
(A teenage girl receives a ticket in Santa Monica for not coming to a full and complete stop at a stop sign and a warning for riding without a helmet as a minor.)

Some readers may recall there was a debate between cyclists and the City of Los Angeles over the use of a local municipal code on bicycle licensing, primarily a program started long ago for theft deterrence and returning stolen bikes, instead being used as a way for the LAPD to harass cyclists and write citations. After pressure from the cycling community at a series of city council meetings and the one L.A. police station with bike licenses being overwhelmed for license requests they were not prepared to fulfill, a moratorium was put in place to prevent any further issuing of tickets under the law.This summer, the law was taken off the books in Los Angeles.

I have not heard of a specific ticketing incident for riding without a bicycle license in Santa Monica, but I started to research things a little. My interest got peaked when I was walking by a police office in downtown Santa Monica and a flier was posted in the window concerning bicycle licensing. This immediately raised a red flag to me considering the drama that played out over bicycle licensing in Los Angeles. So I started to look it up in the Santa Monica municipal code, a bookmark I keep handy next to the California Vehicle Code.

Santa Monica does have a bicycle licensing law on the books that includes some disturbing details that would seem to be in conflict with the California laws that govern the implementation of local bicycle licensing. I think it is also worth pointing out here that the C.V.C. grants city or county governments the right to establish bicycle licensing, and gives guidelines and certain restrictions for such systems. The C.V.C. does not require bicycle licenses state wide, and does not impose any restrictions of it's own upon bicycle riding without a license unless required by a local government. This is in sharp contrast with the bicycle license page of the Santa Monica government web site (buried under finance) which reads "The State of California requires a bicycle license for any bicycle used on any street." I cannot find anything in the list of laws in the C.V.C. concerning bicycles to back up such a claim. Thus it would appear the Santa Monica government website is lying. To me this suggests the Santa Monica government is passing the buck by implying it is the State that makes this a requirement when in fact it is the city's fault you are required to have a license. The State allows cities to do this, but it does not require that they do.

So what are those disturbing details in the Santa Monica municipal code on Bicycle licensing? How about for starters this statement, "shall be punishable by a fine not exceeding two hundred fifty dollars". Wait a minute, in the California Vehicle code it specifically states in C.V.C. Division 16.7 - Registration and Licensing of Bicycles, Section 39011; "No fine imposed for any violation of an ordinance or resolution, which is adopted pursuant to this division, shall exceed ten dollars ($10)". So the state of California says fines for not having a bicycle license in a municipality that require them should not exceed $10, but Santa Monica thinks up to $250 is a suitable amount. I'm not a legal expert, but something seems fishy here.

And it only gets worse from here. The Santa Monica law goes on to say the infraction may also be made a "misdemeanor, which shall be punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars per violation". So a fine of $10 for not having an official sticker on your bike that costs $3 has ballooned to something that could potentially cost you $1000 and show up on your criminal record in Santa Monica. But that's not all folks, you could also get "imprisonment in the County Jail for a period not exceeding six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment."

Now we have truly stepped into the world of the absurd. The bicycle licensing law is barely known to anyone, and I'm sure very few of the thousands of cyclists who pour through the town both from within and from popular cycling neighboring areas such as Venice Beach have ever heard of it. Yet nearly all of them, myself included, are law breakers within Santa Monica city limits for not having an official sticker. All those happy people riding home from the Farmers Market with baskets full of fresh vegetables, a bunch of outlaws. Chances are you, my readership, concentrated most heavily in Santa Monica and neighboring areas, are at risk for police harassment at anytime in Santa Monica borders for simply riding a bicycle without a special sticker on it.

Santa Monica Critical Mass December
(Santa Claus receives a ticket for riding too far to left on the roadway. Ticket thrown out in court after a written declaration defense.)

The reality of being detained for lack of a bicycle license is probably very slim. However if an officer doesn't like you for any other reason, maybe you look homeless, maybe an officer thinks you look like an anarchist, maybe he just plain doesn't like you dressing like Santa Claus, the officer could use a bicycling licensing violation as a pretense to detain you in the absence of any legitimate traffic violations. Thus Santa Monica, voted a Bronze "Bicycle Friendly" city by the League of American Cyclists, empowers it's police force with the ability to harass almost any cyclist on the road by making nearly every cyclist in it's borders a criminal.

Bicycle licensing as it currently exists, where it exists, is like a license plate, not a driver license, and has nothing to do with educational requirements or operation of a bicycle. It is simply a means to identify ownership. It is a legal requirement, however there is almost no attempt at communicating this requirement. You don't hear about it at bike shops, you don't hear about it at city events, and you typically won't hear about it existing at all unless you know where to dig as I just started doing.

What is also odd here, is that while punishment is clearly spelled out and quite severe for not having a bicycle license sticker, not having a license plate on a car is treated as a parking ticket if you are away from the vehicle, and a fix it ticket if you are present. This is what I gathered from reading accounts of license plate violations and every article I could find on the topic. I had trouble tracking down specific official information for fines and punishment but I'm guessing a misdemeanor and 6 months jail time are not potential punishments for the lack of of license plate, and yet it is for a bicycle sticker in Santa Monica. According to an LAPD police woman asked about tickets for lack of a license plate on a car it is a $25 fine as a parking ticket and can cost about $100 as a fix it ticket. This is of course backwards considering an automobile license plate is essential in tracking down potentially fatal hit and run drivers, while incidents of bicycles severely injuring or killing others is incredibly rare. Not that a bicycle license could serve much purpose in identification in a hit and run as they are too small to read without close inspection.

There is no useful purpose for bicycle registration apart from a means for the police to return stolen bicycles, a goal somewhat suspect since thieves routinely remove all stickers and may even grind down serial numbers on bicycles. If the fee were raised it could perhaps become a revenue stream for bicycle improvements, but a high fee would discourage ridership, which is already much slimmer than it should be and most progressive city planners recognize the benefits of increased bicycle ridership in lowering congestion and parking demands. Also if the fee were more significant it would become quite taxing for those of us who own multiple bikes (I have 5 bikes at present), which is easier to do than owning multiple cars, especially if you are aren't paying into car ownership. So if the only useful thing about our bicycle license legislation is to return stolen bicycles, which it mostly fails to do and private companies can do better, why is it written to be so punitive to cyclists and a mandatory requirement to ride? It makes no sense any way I look at it, and even if it were effective at returning bicycles it should be a voluntary program.

Considering that the City of Los Angeles tossed it's bicycle license requirement legislation after its ridicules nature was exposed in public forum, this puts Santa Monica as the odd one out in this regard. Santa Monica is relatively small independent municipality surrounded by the City of Los Angeles, and it makes no sense for Santa Monica to be so radically different in this regard. Especially since Santa Monica makes it a point of pride of being bicycle friendly. Empowering the S.M.P.D. with the means to harass almost any cyclist traveling in it's borders with the threat of severe fines or even jail time does not sound very bicycle friendly to me.

This law should be removed from the books, and I intend to contact the City Council on this issue. If it becomes necessary perhaps we can start a petition and gather a presence at a future Council meeting to bring this absurd legislation to light. The success of revoking the bicycle licensing program in L.A. sets a great precedent for scraping it in Santa Monica. My hunch is this law, started in the 70's and last updated in 1995, is probably completely off the radar of most city officials. Antiquated laws sitting around on the books are nothing new, for example Santa Monica's legislation concerning safe operating speeds for mounted horses and other animals. However horseback riding in Santa Monica is something I have never seen, while bicycle travel is thriving component of transportation here. As such, the laws concerning bicycle travel should be up to date, fair, and reasonable. The fact that thousands of people are regularly in violation of the law simply by riding a bicycle in Santa Monica without an official sticker is not an acceptable situation.

Alex Thompson has added his 2 cents to the matter, and also uncovered an additional C.V.C. that specifies that local bicycle licensing requirements to ride are to apply to residents, however the Santa Monica law is written to apply to everyone. Also handy he includes the appropriate city e-mail addresses if you want to let the city know how you feel about this law.


danceralamode said...

Hey Gary,

Personal anecdote: when I moved from Florida to California I did not have a front license place (FL does not require them). I did get a ticket, but it was a fix-it ticket that cost me $10.

It doesn't seem right to me, if we're comparing bikes to cars, that municipalities should have the burden/right to license bicycles. As you say, many of us traverse numerous municipalities in our travels; wouldn't it be easier for the state to license the bicycle but the municipality to adminstrate it? And the State could provide some funds to the municipality for doing so? Then you wouldn't have to be worried about registering multiple bikes in multiple neighborhoods.

Gary said...

I think the state is too heavily burdened trying to keep up with the paperwork on cars at the DMV to take on bicycle licensing as well. I think bicycle licensing if it is to be done makes the most sense at the county level, since it is more likely for bike travel to be between various cities of the same county. However bicycle licensing as it is written, especially this Santa Monica version, is a poor idea and quite unfair. If it's going to be done it should be done right. said...

Bicycle licensing is intended to help police recover stolen bikes and return them to the proper owners. Not to license a bike to ride the roads or a rider to be trained in the operation of a bike like with motor vehicles. Maybe it could be argued that it would be good to do this with cycling, but it is not the law now. Santa Monica is overstepping big time. Great article/post!

triple steve said...

That clause is pretty typical for municipal codes. But for someone to actually be convicted it would have to go through a judge who would laugh it out of court.

For example, being in a park after 11pm is also a misdemeanor.

Gary said...

Well riding a horse at a hazardous gait does not have any potential jail time or severe fines attached to it. This is clearly a bias of Santa Monica favoring horse back and other animal riders over cyclists...

Alex said...

Just more reason for the League of American Bicyclists to rescind their bronze designation pending massive changes at City Hall and SMPD.

danceralamode said...

I agree, do it right if you're going to do it at all. Side note, I'm trying to read through the Bike Plan, and did not realize that the LA Municipal code does not recognize the bicycle as a legitimate form of transportation. It's a device versus a vehicle. That's one of the things they want to change, and maybe licensing will help with that?

zanesfriend said...

My town (Charleston, WV) has a bike registration program on the books, but (a) there are no penalties for not registering and (b) when I went in to try to license my rides, the clerk just gave me a blank look--she had never heard of it, and there were no forms.

ben said...

HI. I am very glad I stumbled across your blog. I was visiting a friend in Santa Monica last weekend and while he was doing some work I took his bike out for a spin. I was pulled over by a cop as I neared Ocean boulevard on one of the residential streets that runs into it a few blocks south of Montana. He gave me a hard time for not stopping at a stop sign, then asked me for my license. After looking at my license he patted me down, took off my hat, looked in my socks, obviously looking for drugs of which I had none. He then wrote me a ticket for not having the bike registered, which I told him was my friends. So I was charged with a misdemeanor and I now have a court date on March 1st. Seeing as I live in Chicago you can probably understand why this sucks, and any knowledge you share with me I would really appreciate. Thanks,

-Ben White

Gary said...

Hi Ben,
Your case sounds especially bad, and exactly what the worst I feared could happen when this outdated law was brought back to attention within law enforcement. If you could e-mail me any additional details about your story or a scan of the ticket, it would be most helpful in trying to get this law revoked with the City Council, and hopefully any outstanding tickets associated with it suspended.


Kareem said...

Great article. As a Santa Monica cyclist, I've never been stopped by the police dept, and they've always been very friendly. But, as you said, if they wanted to get a cyclist for some other reason, the fact that they have the option to fine you those amounts is outrageous.

Can we start a follow-up petition and present it to city council?

Anonymous said...

Please update the article. Everything on the internet is around a year old. What came of bringing this to the City Council?

Gary said...

For those who haven't been following latest updates, this is finally being fixed after City Attorney acknowledged city is out of compliance with state law with current implementation and enforcement of bike licenses. An update is being drafted to be presented as a future agenda item for city council. Things move slow in city government.