City Council considers steep fine for illegal fireworks

With the nation’s 4th of July celebration around the corner, Tacoma City Council is considering an ordinance that would add some pop to an existing law aimed at residents who light fireworks.

Though fireworks are illegal in Tacoma, enforcement has always been a problem for police officers who typically confiscate fireworks and issue warnings in light of overwhelming resources required to enforce the law.

“One simple arrest can easily occupy an officer for an hour or more, and the municipal court processing time is substantial,” said Tacoma Police Capt. Mike Miller. He spoke yesterday at City Hall during a presentation to councilmembers.

The new ordinance, which had its first reading last night, would reduce paperwork and processing time associated with individuals who violate the law. Possession or use of fireworks would change from a criminal offense to a civil offense, and would allow officers to issue fines of $513 for each offense. Officers could also reduce the time it takes to process evidence by writing the affidavit on the back of the ticket (in lieu of a full offense report) and a quick photograph of evidence.

“This is a law that has been much more violated than enforced,” said Councilmember Mike Lonergan, who expressed doubt that even a new law would curb use of illegal fireworks in Tacoma. “Is an officer going to write that ticket? Or are we going to end up with another law on the books that isn’t going to be enforced?”

According to Capt. Miller, this law would make it easier for officers to take action. “Officers will use discretion,” he said, “but [TPD] is establishing a philosophy and approach of aggressive enforcement and education.”

He added that issuing fines instead of than jail time and court appearances for violators was more in line with the offense. “We don’t think it’s appropriate to take people to jail for fireworks enforcement,” he added.

If City Council approves the ordinance June 12, the action will kick off a community outreach program designed to educate Tacoma residents on the new law. TPD will implement special patrols June 28 through July 6 throughout the city. Similarly, the Fire Department will set up booths at the Tacoma Dome, Cheney Stadium, Taste of Tacoma, farmers markets, and Freedom Fair.

“One way of characterizing it is, ‘Ouch, that really hurts,'” said Mayor Bill Baarsma, referring to the $513 fine. “I think it will get people’s attention. That number will leave a lasting impression.”