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Cotati City Council votes to approve change to code violations

By: Katheine Minkiewicz
August 25, 2017

Cotati Municipal permit code violations will now be charged and prosecuted as simply a code infraction or misdemeanor with a fine instead of solely misdemeanors after the Cotati City Council voted to approve the amendment 5 to 0 Tuesday, to make the change to the ordinance. The change is an attempt to help reduce the amount of minor citations that are dismissed by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

However, despite these new changes to the municipal code ordinance, the City of Cotati would still be able to charge misdemeanor citations to those who are repeat offenders, or for those who have made a serious offense.

Some of these code violations include items ranging from animal welfare, water, sewer and electrical, land use and vehicles and traffic, according to the City of Cotati website.

The need to change the consequences of breaking a code violation, comes from the fact that many of these “minor offenses” can backlog the district attorney’s office with prosecutions. A fine would instead streamline this process and convict more charges instead of merely dropping them.

In an agenda report written by Cotati Chief of Police, Michael Parish, Parish further explained the need to change the prosecution method, “Section 1.20.010 of the Cotati Municipal Code provides that all violations of the Code are misdemeanors unless the violation is specifically listed in the code as an infraction. Therefore, the majority of code violations are currently misdemeanors. Often when someone receives a citation or is arrested for… a Code violation, the district attorney’s office declines prosecution, which results in the citation being dismissed. By contrast, if infractions are issued for violation of the code, it will allow the ability to issue a fine for minor offenses.” 

Essentially all violations will now be infractions, unless the need to issue a misdemeanor is apparent.

During August 8th’s meeting, Parish said of the change, “For ease of prosecution, what I’m finding is that the majority of our cities in Sonoma County do this very thing, they call them ‘wobblers,’ you can charge them as either an infraction or a misdemeanor… and I’m confident that this is the norm of our county. And if we are locked into a misdemeanor, the district attorney’s office may or may not file charges and I am concerned about that.”

Parish continued saying that the change in violation to infraction or misdemeanor would make the whole process faster, with the person being brought to Sonoma County Superior Court to pay the fine.  

If the defendant of the infraction agrees to pay the fine then it would be settled in court and the person would directly pay the fine to the court, as well as pay court administrative fees.

Parish explained if the person wishes to appeal the charges, then they will have to appear for an arraignment hearing.

“Someone will automatically get the fine for the violation and if they don’t want to pay the fine they can come into superior court on calendar and go before a traffic commissioner, receive due process and the commissioner would determine right on the spot whether the infraction is valid or invalid,” Parish said.

Ultimately if a person wants to contest the fine, then they will get a chance of due process of law and appeals court.

Vice Mayor Mark Landman showed no opposition to the new amendment at the August 8 meeting saying, however, he did ask whether or not, “the officer would have the discretion to write the infraction or misdemeanor.” Parish said it would be up to the officer’s decision whether or not the violation calls for an infraction or misdemeanor charge, but that it would usually come down to issuing infractions.

Landman also asked if these minor misdemeanors have indeed been backlogging the DA’s office, which is already understaffed according to the vice mayor. While there is no data showing that the amount of backlog that minor Cotati code violations cause the courts, City Manager Damien O’Bid was able to provide an example of one such instance to support this change.

“There was a dog off leash (misdemeanor) so the DA’s office calls us up and says, ‘really a dog off leash, this is a misdemeanor? Do we really have to prosecute this?’ So those are the kind of circumstances that we are trying to avoid and ration it down to lower level so that it doesn’t clog up the district attorney,” O’Bid said. 

Councilmember John C. Moore also seemed enthusiastic about the adoption of the amendment, saying, “I like the idea of allowing them to do it at a little lower level, so thank you for bringing this.”

This week’s meeting also saw a 5-0 vote on an action agenda item to work to alter the bail schedule to reflect the new infraction amendment. The new bail schedule will also reflect charges of parking fines, fireworks and indecent exposure.