A local homeless advocate was successful Wednesday in fighting a citation he received for riding his bicycle without a bike license, which is a crime in Santa Ana, after a judge said his bike was apparently subjected to an unlawful search.
Igmar Rodas, who represented himself at the trial in Orange County Superior Court, told Judge James Crandall that Officer Salvador Lopez had turned his bike upside down to look for a bike license without his consent. Lopez, in turn, said it was a necessary step to check if the bike was licensed.
Crandall dismissed the citation, saying the bike flipping raised constitutional concerns.
“It does appear there was an unlawful search of the bicycle at that time,” said Crandall, noting that the Fourth Amendment establishes “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.”
Santa Ana’s municipal code bans cycling on a bike that hasn’t been registered with the city, a requirement that is apparently little-known in the city of 330,000, many of whom are working-class Latinos who ride bikes.
The judge asked Lopez what portion of bikes in Santa Ana were licensed.
“I’d probably say it’s a very low percentage,” the officer replied.
At the same time, Crandall did uphold the other citation Rodas received, under a different Santa Ana law: cycling on a sidewalk in a business district. The area did meet the state Vehicle Code’s definition of a business district, Crandall said, and the city code doesn’t grant an exception if pedestrians aren’t around.
Together, the two bicycle citations would have cost Rodas nearly $400 in fines and assessments.
Lopez, who patrols the Civic Center, an area dominated by a homeless encampment, questioned how he was supposed to enforce the bike license law without turning a bike upside down.
Crandall suggested he could look underneath a bike or check the city’s database of bike licenses.
When an officer flips a bicycle upside down, Crandall said, “that becomes a search.”
Lopez said he and his partner, Officer Joe Castellanos, were driving south on Flower St. on May 20 when they saw Rodas riding north on the sidewalk towards Santa Ana Blvd.
The two officers made a U-turn to cite Rodas for riding on the sidewalk, Lopez said, and the officers also noticed he didn’t have a bike license, prompting the second citation.
Rodas, on the other hand, told the judge he had actually been riding in the street, as allowed by law, until he saw the officers make their U-turn, and went onto the sidewalk to get out of their way.
Rodas, who is an outspoken critic of the Santa Ana police department, told Voice of OC he assisted several Civic Center homeless people in filing written complaints against Lopez and Castellanos last month. He started helping prepare the complaints before his May 20 citation and then submitted them in June, he said.
Rodas also films police interactions with homeless people in the Civic Center, posting them to a Facebook page he runs titled “SAPD – Stop Abusing People’s Derechos.”
During the trial, he claimed to have expected retaliation for his activism.
Lopez firmly denied any retaliation.
“There’s no specific individuals…I target,” Lopez told the judge. “That’s not accurate, sir.”
Rodas sought, and received, a 30-day stay of the sidewalk riding ruling so he could prepare an appeal.
Earlier in the morning, Judge Crandall – who frequently greeted defendants and police officers with a smile and a “good morning” – was surprised to learn of another Santa Ana law, one that bans standing on medians.
A man had been selling flowers on a median and was cited, without a warning, by an officer.
“That’s against the law?” Crandall asked the officer, noting that such scenes are common.
The fine for the ticket was $295.
“That’s a lot of flowers,” Crandall quipped.
While finding the man guilty, citing the fact that the law is the law, Crandall waived the fine.
“I just think that you’re out trying to make a living,” which is “commendable,” Crandall said, but people do have to follow laws.
The bike license and sidewalk riding laws were enacted in the 1970s, while the median law was first enacted in the 1950s and last updated in 1999.
The city of Long Beach, which many biking advocates consider a regional leader on bike-friendliness, eliminated its bike license requirement in 2011. Los Angeles ended its licensing mandate in 2009.
Proponents of the license requirement have argued registration makes it easier to recover stolen bikes. Cycling advocates, meanwhile, say the law is too often abused by police to cite cyclists who are unaware of the requirement.
Rodas and another homeless advocate, Larry Smith, said they planned to request the elimination of Santa Ana’s bike license requirement at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Rodas’ fight against the ticket ended up sparking a dialogue with Officer Lopez about the relationship between police and the homeless and their advocates in the Civic Center.
After the trial, Lopez spent about 15 minutes hearing out concerns from Smith, who had been prepared to testify about alleged police retaliation.
Smith told Lopez that officers could make big headway in improving relations with the homeless by greeting them with respect and a smile. Lopez sought to reassure Smith that he had no personal issue with him or Rodas, and noted that it’s part of his job to be respectful of people he comes in contact with.
Towards the end of the conversation, Lopez said he hoped they could all eventually find common ground.
You can reach Nick Gerda at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.
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