Council discusses rail crossing penalties

Council discusses  rail crossing penalties
A woman walks her dog near the train tracks in Encinitas. Encinitas Councilman Mark Muir wants people who illegally cross the train tracks to be given infractions, as opposed to the misdemeanor citations they receive now. File photo by Aaron Burgin

ENCINITAS — An Encinitas City Councilman wants sheriff deputies to cite people who illegally cross the train tracks with 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.”

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 one 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.”

The City Council voted for staff to return at a future meeting with information about what the actual penalties are before deciding whether to move forward with Muir’s recommendation.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer in her newsletter to supporters said that she felt Muir’s proposal sent the message that the city is condoning trespassing, which she called “an unsafe and illegal activity.”

“I would rather see all the Council members working together to focus on the design, approval, and funding of safe rail crossings and a city-wide quiet zone, and rail safety education,” Shaffer said. “I think any effort that diminishes the seriousness of illegal rail crossings is irresponsible.”

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 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.

8 Comments
  1. John Eldon 9 months ago

    Mark Muir is correct on this issue, and Lisa Shaffer, with whom I often concur, is dead wrong this time. There should be NO penalty for crossing the tracks responsibly, i.e., at a site with good sight lines in both directions and at a time when no approaching trains are anywhere nearby. Everyone acknowledges the need for improved access across the tracks, yet the issue drags on year after year, with very little (and very expensive) progress to show. I would love to see a competent attorney push this as the prescriptive easement common law scenario it arguably is.

    It is far easier to cross the tracks safely than to do so on most roads, because there are frequent and lengthy natural breaks in the traffic flow.

    My solution is to use the forward-facing cameras the locomotives and control cabs presumably already have and to post a photo of anyone crossing in front of a moving train. If positive identification can be made, hit the person with the old misdemeanor penalty. (While walking home from Wednesday night’s city council meeting I saw a teenager or young adult wait as an Amtrak train approached, and then run across the tracks. I shared my extremely low opinion of his actions with his friends who had watched the whole thing. This is not grade school — let’s not penalize all of the responsible, mature folks for the actions of a few idiots.

  2. jeffery laudenslager 9 months ago

    I live on Vulcan and watch crossers on a daily, hourly basis. An expansion and improvement of the “rail trail” will certainly increase the likelihood of more track crossings. Events at Moonlight Beach, like concerts attract large numbers of visitors and there are not enough real parking options on the West side of the tracks. Guess what; lots of people park along and cross the tracks to attend.

    Let’s imagine what will happen when we have double tracking and high speed trains. I think we have a community and an antiquated rail system that no longer happily co-exist.

  3. john 9 months ago

    Blakespear crosses all the time with her family. Wonder if she will get a ticket?

  4. Bart Salatka 9 months ago

    I would be interested to know how many people were hurt or injured by a train in the last year while crossing the tracks (not including suicide/attempt). Is it really a problem? If there is actually no safety issue, why penalize people when the problem is that the city can’t afford to make crossings at reasonable intervals?

  5. Morgan Mallory 9 months ago

    “I would rather see all the Council members working together to focus on the design, approval, and funding of safe rail crossings and a city-wide quiet zone, and rail safety education,” Shaffer said. “I think any effort that diminishes the seriousness of illegal rail crossings is irresponsible.”

  6. Morgan Mallory 9 months ago

    It is not realistic to believe NCTD is going to ignore illegal passage across their right of way. Nor is it realistic to believe that it’s not a problem.
    We can continue to kick the problem down the road or have EVERY BODY work together to solve this issue.
    Reducing the fine does nothing to provide safe, legal, convenient and quiet access across the tracks.
    Is it possible to have at grade, safe and convenient rail crossings?
    Sure. Other cities are doing it. Carlsbad, Del Mar and San Clemente to name a few.
    Let’s work to solve the problem, not just reduce the fine.

  7. David 9 months ago

    This railroad is owned by the public and we have been crossing the tracks ever since they were first put there. Making it illegal now when it is publicly owned and a burden to those that live here should itself be an illegal act by NCTD and anyone giving tickets to those crossing our rail line.

    Solution: Trench and cover the tracks and/or slow down the trains so safety is not an issue until a permanent solution is in place!

  8. Dan 9 months ago

    As a longtime, multi- generational resident, I also think this is over kill! The notion that this will decrease accidents is absurd. I would very much like to see empirical data of the number of deaths on the tracks as opposed to crossing 101 or Vulcan.

    With clear line of site it takes a few seconds to get over the tracks safely. If a person can’t negotiate this, making it illegal isn’t going to help them.

    Maybe there be monitors appointed to help confirm its safe to cross! Yes that is a joke as are many of the stupid regulations impose on the public, the “we the people” who risk slipping on a banana peel when we get out of bed and suffering a life ending head injury.

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