Laguna Beach to seek criminal charges against fireworks users

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A Laguna Beach police patrol car. Photo courtesy of LBPD

Laguna Beach will pursue misdemeanor charges against illegal fireworks users over the holiday weekend to address concerns about very high wildfire risk to wilderness-facing neighborhoods.

This represents a significant escalation from the previous practice of issuing administrative fines of $100, $200, or $500 to illegal fireworks users. A misdemeanor carries penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and a year in county jail.

“I’m sufficiently satisfied that we can categorize violations of the prohibition on the use of fireworks as a misdemeanor,” City Attorney Phil Kohn said Tuesday.

Kohn added that state law authorizes the fire chief, fire marshal, or a designated deputy fire marshal with the power to arrest people for such violations.

Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella told the City Council on Tuesday that officers have found it difficult to police illegal fireworks because they need to catch someone in the act, which is generally necessary for prosecution. Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow suggested that Farinella considering dispatching the department’s drone in fireworks hot spots.

“We can fly a drone over but then we bring the drone down and fly away and move onto a new area and they go back to where we were,” Farinella said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. I’m just saying it’s a timing issue.”

Laguna Beach officers will also be patrolling in Laguna Canyon and the Alta Laguna neighborhood where fireworks reports are historically concentrated, Farinella said. Electronic billboards at the city limits will notify visitors that illegal fireworks is a misdemeanor and will be prosecuted.

Sgt. Jim Cota, a spokesperson for the Laguna Beach Police Department, said officers will use discretion when making an arrest based on the situation, including the type of firework and amount.

The Laguna Beach Fire Department will deploy two arson investigators on Saturday to respond to fires and hold confiscated fireworks, Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mark Garcia said. A two-person paramedic squad will also be staffed this weekend to transport patients out of the city, allowing fire engine companies to stay local.

There is no law that prevents Laguna Beach residents from purchasing “safe and sane” fireworks in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, Farinella said.

Councilmember Sue Kempf recommended the City Council should consider revising the city law prohibiting fireworks and potentially step up fines.

“We should try to bring an ordinance back so we don’t lose sight of this,” she said. “It’s going to come up again next year.”

Mayor Bob Whalen noted that the fireworks aren’t only a problem on July 4 and there there’s fireworks season now.

“It’s something we need to get on top of as best we can,” he said. “I know you have to just be there and be lucky, but the more patrolling we do, the better chance we’re going to have of catching somebody.”

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