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Wilderness Park tickets cause ruckus with violators and courts

More than 300 Wilderness Park citations issued by Claremont police within the past 3 weeks will continue to be upheld despite recent proposals for dismissal.

At a special meeting held last week, Claremont police presented city council with a series of options to handle the onslaught of tickets, including an altogether waiving of the fines. Officials called the meeting after Pomona court officials raised concerns over the large amount of citations in Claremont, and the backlog it would create for the court system.

The council voted unanimously to uphold citations, despite complaints against the ambiguity of park hours and confusion over court law changes, in order to set a precedent for the city, according to officials.

“Nobody likes getting a ticket, but as long as you have a law, you need to follow the law,” said Councilmember Corey Calaycay.  “That is the key issue here that we need to remember.”

Police started cracking down on violators of Wilderness Park rules after issues were raised by locals at a July city council meeting, and were shocked by the number of people violating park hours.

“I was completely surprised to see so many people exiting the park after dark, and 75 percent of them carrying flash lights,” Claremont Police Chief Paul Cooper said. “It poses a problem to fire and police because at the furthest point you are 2 and a half miles away on unpaved roads that, depending on the time of year, presents a significant challenge for officers trying to get up there.”

Wilderness Park hours are currently listed as “between dawn and dusk,” posing issues of ambiguity that brought up points of contention for some locals.

“What do we mean by dawn to dusk? It’s vague,” said Dean McHenry, who called for the citations to be waived.

However, Chief Cooper claimed that officers took this ambiguity into consideration, issuing tickets no early than 9 p.m. when darkness had already fallen. Though council members agreed with the lack of clarity in park hours, public safety concerns took top priority.

“At the wilderness park there are animals that come out for dinner in the evenings. I would not be encouraging people to stay out there late. It’s a big safety issue we need to be concerned about,” said Councilmember Opanyi Nasiali.

The special meeting was also called to deal with changes in court laws over the past year that Claremont police were unaware of, according to Chief Cooper. All municipal code violations in local cities are now filed as misdemeanors, requiring trials unless the courts are notified otherwise. Claremont police did not know about the changes, and had intended for the citations to be dealt with as infractions with the ability to go through traffic court, Chief Cooper explained.

In addition to the $35 municipal code violation fee, the only fee Claremont police had initially intended, citation recipients will accrue state fees that coincide with going to trial.  The ticket will end up costing about $200, said Chief Cooper, stating that he feels “the fine really doesn’t fit the violation.” Locals agreed that the costs and hassle of going to court do not fit the nature of the violation.

“It seems to me that already these people are being punished,” Mr. McHenry said. “205 people are having to leave their jobs, if they have them, to appear in court... it’s simply an unacceptable penalty for something that is not entirely their fault.”

Despite pleas, however, the council members unanimously agreed against waiving the fines, wanting to set a precedent and protect public safety.

By its approval, the city council mandated that the 105 citations that have not yet been filed will be entered as infractions with the option of its recipient to go through traffic court. The 205 that have already been filed will still have to appear in municipal court. The $35 city fee applies for all citations.

“None of the options are perfect. I hate to see these people go to court and come back to a local process... but I myself think that whenever you start waiving tickets, it’s just a bad idea,” said Councilmember Larry Schroeder.

More issues involving the Wilderness Park, along with its hours and public safety, will be addressed at the next city council meeting Tuesday, September 13. Until then, Claremont police will be holding off on Wilderness Park citations, according to Chief Cooper.
 

—Beth Hartnett

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