In a couple of months, catching Z’s in your car while on a city street could cost you.
When it met on Wednesday night, the City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would prohibit sleeping in vehicles on Rancho Santa Margarita public roads between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The ordinance, which passed 4-1, will be read a second time at the next council meeting on March 14, and, if ratified, would go into effect 30 days after the second reading.
“The members of our council have always been inclined to provide every tool to the police to make sure that we remain the safest city (of its size) in California,” said Mayor Tony Beall, who voted for the ordinance.
“This is nothing unusual,” Beall said. “It's really just filling into our code a provision which would mirror what's already in place across Orange County.”
According to Orange County Sheriff Lt. Brian Schmutz, chief of police services for Rancho Santa Margarita, the ordinance gives deputies a tool to protect residents.
Schmutz described an incident in September in which deputies found a man outside a local elementary school with a loaded semiautomatic handgun, police insignia, handcuffs and a handcuff key in his vehicle.
Officers investigated the incident because the man had been sleeping in his car about 45 minutes before school was supposed to open, and Schmutz said that underscores the need for the ordinance.
“The intent is to keep the neighborhoods as safe as possible,” Schmutz said. “And I don’t think anyone feels safe looking out their window at 2 o’clock in the morning seeing someone sleeping in a vehicle.”
Schmutz said that in 2011 there were more than 330 calls for service regarding suspicious vehicles and suspicious people in vehicles, and he estimated about 24 of the calls were for people sleeping in vehicles.
“I just want to know if any of them are councilmembers,” joked councilmember Carol Gamble, who voted in favor of the ordinance.
In addition to affecting neighborhood safety, Schmutz said the act of sleeping in a vehicle creates an unsanitary environment—no toilets or showers—and puts the sleepers, who are vulnerable while asleep, at risk for assault or other types of crime.
According to city attorney Greg Simonian, violating the ordinance would be classified a misdemeanor offense—punishable with a maximum of six months in jail and/ or a $1,000 fine.
However, Simonian said his office would have the discretion to downgrade the punishment to a code “infraction,” and that the punishment for the infraction would range between $35 and $50, and the fine would be no more than a maximum of $100 on first offense.
According to Schmutz a number of other cities have similar ordinances including Aliso Viejo, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Tustin.
Councilman Jesse Petrilla, who cast the sole dissenting vote on the item, said that ordinance would place a burden on already down-on-their-luck residents who may be sleeping in their vehicles because they lack housing.
He also said the ordinance would punish drivers who stop their vehicles when they are tired.
“I think we need to take all scenarios into consideration,” Petrilla said. “I would much rather have them take an exit and fall asleep safely, rather than have an accident.”
However, other council members as well as Simonian felt that there was considerable discretionary latitude for officers who come upon drivers who might be taking a catnap to avoid driving while drowsy.
- The City Council recognized outgoing and incoming members of the Bell Tower Foundation, the fundraising organization that recently donated 18 iMacs to the City for use in the .
- As part of a student recognition program, the city honored Daniel Flanagan and Erin Purnell of , and Jennifer Mrha and Melissa Petersen of for their scholastic and extracurricular achievements.
- The next city council meeting takes place 7 p.m. March 14 in Council Chambers at .