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Debate on fare evasion on Fresno's BRT becomes decriminalization flashpoint

According to the staff report, the code amendments before the council on May 18 would:

  • “Provide the Director with the authority to designate employees as ‘enforcement officers;’
  • “Prohibit fare evasion, which includes, but is not limited to, entering a transit vehicle without valid fare, misusing a transfer pass, and unauthorized use of a discount ticket;
  • “Prohibit willfully providing false identification to a peace officer or other designated representative of FAX;
  • “Provide the City with discretion to punish fare evasion through issuance of a criminal or administrative citation.”

Accompanying the staff report was six pages of additions and deletions to Fresno Municipal Code.

The task before the council on May 18 was adoption of the proposed changes. The changes had been successfully introduced by council vote at a previous meeting. I mention this only to emphasize that nothing in this proposal was new to the council.

But, as we will see, the significance of this small slice of BRT policy was beginning to hit home among Fresno’s legislators.

The May 18 hearing began with Council President Olivier asking Assistant Transportation Director Greg Barfield to “bring us up to date” on proposed ordinance changes.

Barfield briefly summed up the staff report, adding that FAX must come up with a fare evasion policy. I took that to mean the feds, who are paying for most of BRT’s construction, don’t want to subsidize fare evaders.

“That’s why we’re here today – for the framework of what that policy looks like,” Barfield said.

Barfield added that policy details, such as penalties, are still to come. He noted that fare evaders sometimes plague current FAX routes. For example, Barfield said, the rider might pass a Chuck E. Cheese token as a legitimate FAX token.

Olivier made a motion to approve the staff’s recommendation.

Council Member Esmeralda Soria sent the debate in a new direction. She had read the entire framework. It wasn’t all that vague, she said.

“When I looked at it, it seems like the framework is pretty clear as to what we’re going to do” to fare evaders, Soria said. “I feel very uncomfortable, actually, after taking a look at it a little bit more.”

Soria’s concern: A fare-evader caught for the third time could be facing a misdemeanor.

“I don’t feel we should be in the business of criminalizing folks even if it’s for multiple (times),” Soria said. “I think we should exclude them (from the system), and figure out a way to punish them. But I think creating a misdemeanor – I don’t feel comfortable going in that direction.”

Said Barfield: “Council Member, we don’t feel that comfortable either, but that’s why we’re going through this process of trying to figure out what it looks like and….”

Soria interrupted Barfield.

“I would ask to exclude it (the misdemeanor provision) then, because I don’t think that it should be part of the framework,” Soria said. “I just can’t support it then. I would submit that we strike that out. I think there are a couple of ways that we can (regulate fare evaders) – double the citation and, at the very extreme, exclude them from riding the bus.

“I don’t want to be in the business of criminalizing people. We already know who are the folks riding the bus traditionally, and, really, what we have is low-income people trying to get to work, trying to get to school. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going out into the community and saying, ‘Hey, I’m criminalizing someone because they didn’t pay a dollar-something.’”

Soria made a motion to strike the misdemeanor part from the proposal. Council Member Oliver Baines provided the second.

Bredefeld was next up.

“If you take it out, I won’t support it,” Bredefeld said. “I think we should criminalize people who commit crimes. It’s a very simple thing. If we start deciding that we’re not going to prosecute people when they commit crimes – which the state is trying to do with Prop 47 and 57 and AB 109. That’s why we’re more unsafe. So, I support leaving it (the misdemeanor provision) in, and I support prosecuting people who commit crimes. I think it makes for a much safer society.”

Baines asked City Attorney Doug Sloan to explain the possible punishments in the proposed framework.

Sloan said a fare-evader on the first and second violations would be looking at an infraction. On the third violation, the fare-evader could face a misdemeanor or an administrative citation.

Baines suggested to Soria that her motion include a ban for the fare-evader on the third violation. Soria agreed.

Let’s take a break here and review things.

George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

3 Comments

  1. Some thoughts:

    1) the current version of BRT is a watered down version due to a majority of the council bulking at the original concept.

    2) BRT is unlikely to pay for itself, at least in the short term.

    3) FAX (though I prefer the original proposed name change of FART back in the day) needs a makeover. It’s needed one for decades. What we have is a baling wire and duct tape system of routes that have been added or adapted as Fresno grew.

    4) I haven’t ridden the bus in a long time but I doubt the demographics have changed: students, poor people and the elderly, all of whom don’t drive. FAX became a replacement for school buses in my day riding.

    5) Fare jumping or evasion has always been a problem. It was back in the 1970s and if anything has likely gotten worse. Caprioglio is right in that the court system has bigger fish to fry than someone who “forgot” to pay the bus fare.

    6) The other legal beagle is right too. However what do you spend scarce resources on? The service or busting people for a low grade crime that’ll carry no jail time.

  2. One more thought. The monetary fines likely will never be collected. If you examine the current traffic infraction fine debate, you’ll realize it’s being driven by two realizations: (1) poor people don’t have $250 or more to pay a fine/penalty assessments and (2) driver license suspensions just make things worse. California cities barrage homeless folks with citations for such activities as sleeping in public or panhandling as part of “tough love” or “we’ll make life so miserable they’ll leave” campaigns. Two things happen: (1) people ignore the tickets and so they go to warrant and (2) even if they’re arrested for warrant(s) the sheriff just kicks them out the jail door and the fines are never collected because they don’t have the money to ever pay. It’s a Catch-22 for the city.

  3. I’m sure other big cities have worked out the logistics for such payment system of its transit. See what they have done.

    As an example, San Francisco has the Clipper Card. I have one and use it every time I’m in the bay area. I can use it on BART, Muni, city bus, cable cars, ferries, and Cal Train. I have my card set to reload from my bank when it gets low, but there could be places for people to reload their card with cash. If your card doesn’t work, you don’t get to board the transportation.

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