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.

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