It’s like playing Whack-A-Mole.
Once we deal with cops misapplying the law in one area, it pops up in another.
Longtime bike advocate Stephen Box, now Director of Government & Community Affairs for the Transit Coalition, witnessed Alhambra police stopping a bike rider on Saturday in what he calls “overkill for an infraction… that carries a maximum penalty of $5.”
This is how Box describes what he saw.
I watched the entire process, from Officer Alvarez chirping the cyclist and pulling him over to Officer Vega joining the stop to the officers searching the cyclist and his backpack and his bike. When it was over, the cyclist left and I asked the Officers what happened and found the explanation implausible. A westbound motorist (Officer Alvarez) in a stopped car can’t almost hit a northbound cyclist riding in the crosswalk.
Box stopped to talk with the two officers, then called their watch commander. But rather than getting a clear explanation of the officers’ actions, he discovered none of the three seemed to be clear on the Alhambra Municipal Code that laid the basis for the officer’s actions. So he looked it up himself.
Apparently it’s illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalks of Alhambra. (Alhambra Municipal Code 10.04.020) I looked it up and I have three comments:
- I’m not a fan of sidewalk cycling, I think it’s dangerous for the cyclist but I understand it
- I’m not a fan of local traffic laws that aren’t posted. In this case the public can hardly be expected to know of un-posted restrictions when law enforcement is also unclear on the specifics of the code
- If Alvarez pulled the cyclist over for riding in the crosswalk, wouldn’t the appropriate action have been information on safe cycling instead of the three-way search?
His research also led to a couple of discrepancies in the city’s municipal code.
While researching Alhambra’s unposted sidewalk cycling ban, I found two instances where the City of Alhambra appears to be in violation of the State of California’s Uniformity Code which states “no local authority shall enact or enforce any ordinance on the matters covered by this code unless expressly authorized herein.”
- Alhambra’s Bike Licensing Law (10.04.040)is a violation of CVC 21. The City of Alhambra does not have the authority to require bike licenses from non-resident cyclists.
- Alhambra’s “Five feet from the Curb” law (10.04.030)is a violation of CVC 21. The City of Alhambra does not have the authority to establish a specific distance from the right-side curb for cyclists. Further, the courts have held (Mauchle v. Panama-Pacific Int’l Expo. Co., 37 Cal. App. 715, 719 (1918)) that “The provisions of the law are elastic. They do not attempt to lay down a definite and rigid rule as to the distance which the slowly moving vehicle must keep from the curb.”
As you may have noticed, Stephen Box know his way around state and local traffic laws and enforcement, particularly as it pertains to bicycling.
He co-founded a number of bike advocacy groups, including the now-dormant Bikeside LA, the city’s first — and so far, only — bicycling nonprofit group registered with the IRS as 501(c)(4) to engage in political activity.
He also led the 2009 march on the LA city council that marked the unofficial start of the modern bike advocacy movement in Los Angeles. Setting in motion the events that would eventually lead to adoption of the Cyclists’ Bill of Rights (informally, and sadly forgotten), the Cyclists’ Anti-Harassment Ordinance, and the 2010 LA Bike Plan that’s now under attack in city hall as part of the Mobility Plan 2035.
And he was one of the original founders of the LAPD’s bike liaison program, helping to develop the department’s bicycle training module that was required viewing for every street-level officer.
Box followed-up his repeated, and apparently unsuccessful, phone conversations with the watch commander with an email to the Chief of Police for the Alhambra Police Department, asking for a review of the events he witnessed and the municipal code discrepancies he uncovered.
So, here is the formal request conclusion to this email:
- I request a review of the Fremont/Mission traffic stop of a male cyclist that took place on Sunday, June 18, 2016 at approximately 5pm by Officer Alvarez who was then backed up by Officer Vega. Specifically, was the search warranted (reading paperwork in the cyclist’s backpack can hardly be construed as a search for weapons due to safety concerns) for a minor traffic infraction or did it exceed the standard?
- I request a review of the Watch Commander’s instructions that I come to the station to file a complaint and that I come to the station to request a record (the field incident report taken by the officers at the traffic stop).
- I request a review of the two Alhambra City Municipal Codes (10.04.040 and 10.04.030) that are a direct violation of the State of California’s Uniformity Code.
There is little question from what he describes that the officers’ search exceeded what is legally allowed under the circumstances; the courts have repeatedly ruled that a simple traffic stop does not provide probable cause for an invasive search, whether you’re in a car, on foot or on a bike.
Even if they were legitimately searching the backpack for weapons, let’s not forget that the officers had the rider under their control, and presumably unable to access that backpack, whether for a weapon or anything else. If he could, they need some serious retraining.
And let’s not forget that you have the legal right to refuse an officer’s request to search your belongings.
Box concluded by thanking the chief for all he does to make the streets of Alhambra safe for everyone, “including motorists and pedestrians and transit passengers and cyclists.”
Which is a sentiment I share, having worked with police departments on various bicycling issues over the years, I truly appreciate the job they do to keep us all safe on the streets and in our homes.
But sometimes, as we’ve seen, they get it wrong.
And sometimes, local governments overstep their bounds.
On the other hand, the Alhambra police deserve a round of thanks for recovering an apparently stolen or misplaced silver Condor bicycle. If it looks familiar, contact the department at 626/308-4875.
And either way, let that be a reminder to always register your bike, whether here through Bike Index, or with some other organization.
Thanks to Megan Lynch for the heads-up.
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