An Encinitas City Councilman wants sheriff deputies to cite people who illegally cross the train tracks to be given “jaywalking” infractions, as opposed to the misdemeanor citations traditionally handed out to track scofflaws.
But a recent shift in policy might make the councilman’s request moot.
Mark Muir requested the council-initiated agenda item, which would direct local officers to issue citations of the less-serious infraction variety for track crossings. Muir said punishing people for what amounts to jaywalking with serious misdemeanor charges – which carry a maximum $1,000 fine and carry other consequences – on their record is overkill.
“As a fire chief, I am thinking about it from a safety and situational awareness standpoint,” said Muir, who was the city’s fire chief before being appointed to the council in 2011. “From that standpoint, I feel that this is a punishment that is over the top.”
The punishment for illegal train crossings has been a sore point in Encinitas, where the railroad essentially divides the community outside of several rail crossings. Residents, business owners and others have complained they have been penalized for trying to access businesses and the beach on the other side of the tracks.
In some cases, people have complained that the misdemeanor offenses have cost them employment opportunities.
Muir said that he recently was speaking with a boy scout who did not know that crossing the tracks was a misdemeanor.
“A lot of people don’t understand that it can go on your record, that it could affect your career,” Muir said. “I feel that the punishment needs to fit the crime.”
Muir compared the illegal track crossing to illegally crossing busy Coast Highway 101, which would result in a jaywalking ticket.
“If you look at the stats, more people are killed crossing roads than they are crossing the tracks, and the punishment is far less,” Muir said. “There has to be a reasonable and balanced punishment, and I don’t think it currently is.”
Under Muir’s agenda item, the council could vote to direct City Manager Karen Brust to determine the impact and process for changing the policy, direct the city’s contract lobbyist to find a state lawmaker willing to carry a bill to make the change statewide an to bring back the item for public input and future council direction.
But one sergeant with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s Rail Enforcement Unit said that officers have recently started ticketing people under a different section of the law that is an infraction, rather than a misdemeanor.
Traditionally, deputies have cited illegal track crossings under California Penal Code 369i, which states that anyone who enters or remains on rail property and interferes, interrupts or hinders the safe operation of a train is guilty of a misdemeanor.
About six months ago, however, deputies started using a policy in the state’s Public Utilities Code, section 99170(a)(1), which essentially contains the same language but is administered as an infraction.
Since August, when the North County Transit District – which contracts with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement along its right of way – started an illegal crossing crack down, deputies have issued 85 citations. Of those, 84 were infractions and 1 was a misdemeanor, said Sgt. Jason King, who oversees rail enforcement.
“The law has been there, but we recently found it and talked with the District Attorney’s office, and they are good with us issuing that citation,” King said. “We leave it to the deputy’s discretion to determine what they feel is appropriate.”
Most of the time, King said, deputies will issue warnings to discourage future illegal crossings.
King said he wasn’t aware of Muir’s item on the council agenda, but said the department would enforce the laws and policies as they were instructed.
Muir said he was not aware of the shift in policy, but said it sounded as if law enforcement was moving in the right direction.
“If they can do that, we are looking good,” Muir said of infractions.
The City Council meets at 6 p.m. Aug. 24 at City Hall, 505 South Vulcan Avenue.