The wife of slain Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo pleaded guilty Wednesday to voluntary manslaughter for shooting him three times in their home just over two years ago.
Lyvette Crespo, 45, is facing three months in county jail, 500 hours of community service and five years formal probation under a disposition reached with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, according to Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman.
Crespo is set to be formally sentenced Jan. 5 in connection with the Sept. 30, 2014, shooting death of her husband, Daniel Crespo Sr.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy noted that she will review a probation report once it is completed to determine if she will go along with the disposition. If not, Crespo would have the option of withdrawing her plea, the judge said.
One of the woman’s attorneys told the judge that she wanted to plead no contest, but the prosecutor insisted on a guilty plea and Crespo eventually acquiesced after speaking with her lawyers.
“She should plead guilty to what she did,” Silverman said outside court. “The factual basis is that she shot him three times in the chest.”
Outside court, Crespo’s brother, William, objected to the plea agreement, which he said he heard about for the first time during the hearing.
“I’m hurt. I’m confused, all kinds of emotions are going on right now,” he told reporters. “I’m so shocked. I still can’t believe that she’s gonna get away with this … She should pay for what she did. She killed my brother.”
He said he believes his sister-in-law’s sentence “should be a long time.”
Crespo’s attorneys have claimed that she shot and killed her husband in self-defense after enduring years of abuse at his hands.
At a hearing last month, defense lawyer Eber Bayona said he thought the two sides had reached a deal, but told the judge that the offer apparently was not approved by supervisors in the District Attorney’s Office.
Another of her attorneys, Roger Lowenstein, told reporters last month that two deals had been on the table. The first, involving a plea of involuntary manslaughter, was withdrawn by prosecutors who then sought a voluntary manslaughter plea. Both deals were for probation with no jail time,
“Lyvette Crespo is innocent. This is a self-defense case,” Lowenstein said, alleging her husband “tortured [her] for 28 years.”
He said then that it made sense for Crespo to take the deal and “start healing” given the risk of a possible 21-year sentence and a mandatory 10-year term for using a firearm if she had gone to trial and been convicted.
Crespo was indicted in April 2015 on the voluntary manslaughter charge. Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators have said the mayor and his wife were arguing when their then-19-year-old son, Daniel Crespo Jr., intervened, leading to a struggle between father and son.
Lyvette Crespo claims she was protecting the couple’s son when she grabbed a handgun and shot her husband, who had allegedly punched the young man in the face.
Bayona contends that Daniel Crespo “was a man who abused not only his wife but other women” and mentally and physically abused his children.
William Crespo has denied allegations that his brother was abusive, but said the mayor had a series of extramarital affairs that angered his wife.
A civil lawsuit filed Oct. 20, 2014, by Daniel Crespo’s mother alleges her daughter-in-law picked a fight with him knowing that their son would intervene, then opened a safe, grabbed a gun and killed her husband “with malice and in cold blood.”
Bell Gardens Mayor Pedro Aceituno will soon be sitting behind two different daises, simultaneously serving on the city council and the Central Basin Municipal Water District Board of Directors.
Aceituno received 40 percent of the votes during the Nov. 8 election, beating out Pico Rivera Councilman Bob Archuleta.
Aceituno will represent the Water District’s Division 1, which covers the cities of Bell Gardens, Downey, Montebello, Pico Rivera, West Whittier-Los Nietos, and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.
In an interview before the election, Archuleta told EGP he planned to relinquish his seat on the council if elected. Aceituno did not respond to EGP’s inquiries at the time.
However, the mayor now says he will continue serving on the Bell Gardens City Council and told EGP he has no plans to step down, adding he sees no conflict in holding the two public offices at the same time.
Under state law, an elected official may not hold two different public offices simultaneously if the offices have “overlapping and conflicting public duties.” The Office of Attorney General Kamala Harris previously took issue with a case in the city of Corona, where a councilman also served as the director of the Water Replenishment District.
Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner says that case does not apply to Aceituno, likening it to comparing “apples and oranges.”
“There is no legal reason for Aceituno to step down from office,” Wagner told EGP. “The D.A. hasn’t raised issue here.”
Wagner tells EGP that as city manager he is the one charged with making any decisions related to water issues or purchases in the city. He noted that Aceituno does not deal with the day-to-day activities involving the water wholesaler.
Aceituno has always taken precautions to avoid conflicts, often abstaining from votes or even leaving the room during a vote that could be perceived as a conflict of interest for him, Wagner said.
“If there are any potential conflicts I will continue to do the same,” echoed Aceituno.
The Bell Gardens mayor – a title that revolves between council members – told EGP that he has not been advised by either the Central Basin or city attorney that holding both elected offices poses a conflict of interest. He added that when he was elected to the water district board, voters were well aware of his position.
“When I ran it was no hidden secret that I was the councilman from the city of Bell Gardens, it was on my campaign literature,” he said. Yet “folks still chose to elect me.”
Aceituno says he plans to focus on helping the scandal-plagued board make changes.
In 2007, Aceituno was recognized by the Central Basin for his work making Bell Gardens the first city in the region to embrace a citywide conservation program through use of a conservation grant.
“I have experience dealing with issues of water,” said Aceituno, who previously represented the city on the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.
Wagner says having good quality, fiscally responsible representatives at the Central Basin will benefit all cities and help water rates stay down.
“He’s done well [in Bell Gardens],” says Wagner. “I look forward to seeing better management and organization” at Central Basin.
Aceituno was elected to the Bell Gardens City Council in 1999 and is the city’s longest-sitting elected official.
He will assume his position on the Central Basin board next month.
Concerned that the corruption scandals in some Southeast Los Angeles County areas might taint their own reputations, cities in the region have distanced themselves from one another and for the most part chosen to go it alone, strictly focusing on what goes on within their borders.
That changed last week when area leaders and residents came together to highlight their strengths and to begin to construct a new narrative for the region, one which they hope will lead to greater public and private investment to create more jobs, better schools and bring other resources.
“Regionalization allows our community to work together to leverage funds,” pointed out Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) during the discussion on communities located along the SR-710 Corridor.
“It allows us to be more influential,” Lara emphasized.
The Oct. 27 “Summit of Possibilities: People, Community and Progress” was hosted by the Pat Brown Institute and the California Community Foundation and focused on the regional potential of the southeast portion of Los Angeles County, including Commerce, Cudahy, Bell, Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Downey, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Maywood, Paramount, South Gate and Vernon.
The cities are densely populated and home to a blue-collar workforce surrounded by industry, described opening speaker, Christopher Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics.
Of the 750,000 people who call the area home, nearly 90 percent are Hispanic, according to the data from Beacon Economics, which also showed that a large number of the residents are fairly young, low-income and have not completed high school.
For most in the room, the information came as no surprise.
“If you lived in the area you already knew this,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice.
A majority of the housing stock is still single-family homes, Thornberg said, suggesting that the cities should invest in building more multi-family housing units to accommodate the Southeast’s growing population.
“This place is ripe for high density, transportation-oriented communities,” Thornberg said. “Given the size of population…single family [housing] is not appropriate.”
It was a suggestion that did not sit well with some of the residents in the audience.
“How can you build when you don’t have space,” Mary Johnson of South Gate asked.
Another resident wanted to know if transforming the area into a technology hub is feasible?
Thornberg suggested cities would be better served by focusing their energies on ensuring existing businesses, especially the large number of manufacturing companies still operating in the region, succeed.
The region has some of the worst air pollution in the state but air quality could be improved and jobs created through better use of the Los Angeles River and pushing more of the goods movement on to the underutilized Alameda Corridor, the economist told Summit participants.
For Bell Gardens and Commerce, Thornberg said continued investment in the casinos in those cities is key to increasing revenue and jobs.
Cities must revisit their general plans, incentivize small builders and unite to compete for grants and businesses, Thornberg advised.
“If you get together you have clout,” he emphasized.
Every presenter acknowledged the event as a very important start to creating a new identify for the southeast region.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Maywood echoed that the southeast cities he represents are all densely populated, have high rates of poverty and lack resources such as community colleges, parks, courthouses and access to light rail transportation.
Still, he says he believes a “renaissance of the southeast” is on the horizon.
Many of the panelists said they recognize the answer to the region’s woes is greater investment in the next generation and incentivizing them to stay or return to their community.
“Our [communities] should not be places our folks have to leave,” said Lopez. “We need to look to the future, at retaining residents not displacing them.”
Access to high quality education is the key to retaining local talent, said Nadia Diaz Funn of Alliance for a Better Community.
She noted that 75 percent of the students from the 8 area high schools who attend Cal State LA are not proficient in math or English, and only 45 percent of those who attend graduate within 6 years.
“It has to begin at the schools that are serving our children,” Funn said.
Sen. Lara suggested it might take breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District to make sure southeast area students aren’t neglected.
Currently, Cal State LA guarantees admission to students attending LA Unified schools in East Los Angeles who complete the Go East LA pathways program, Dunn pointed out, adding, “Where is the Southeast’s promise?”
It will take coordination, organizing and residents and elected officials demanding changes to make anything happen, panelists acknowledged.
Nonprofits and philanthropy must also be part of the conversation, panelists agreed.
“It was philanthropy that brought us together,” pointed out Dr. Juan Benitez of the Cal State Long Beach Center for Community Engagement.
“We have identified the southeast region as an area we want to focus on and provide resources,” responded Belen Vargas of the Weingart Foundation, which provides grants and other support to nonprofit groups.
Rendon, however, sharing his own experience in the nonprofit sector, expressed frustration that many companies believe the only way to help Latinos is to provide services in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.
With part-time city council members and mayors, it’s often “overcompensated” city managers and administrators who act as the default policy makers, said Benitez. Ultimately, decisions are made through policies, she emphasized. The highly publicized corruption scandals that came out of Bell, Maywood and Vernon revolved around overpaid city administrators.
East Yard’s Lopez says the problem of political corruption needs to be part of the conversation. Holding elected officials accountable after the election is vital, but it will only happen with good community organizing and a clear vision, he said.
“We need baselines or else how will we know we achieved [anything],” Benitez said.
Speaker after speaker said the conversation at the Summit just touched the surface of the Southeast region’s needs, assets and potential power.
“We are all the southeast,” said Lara. “This cannot be the last time we meet, this has to be the new norm.”
Authorities Thursday investigated the shooting death of a man in Bell Gardens.
The shooting occurred at 11:51 p.m. Wednesday in the 6000 block of Buell Street, said Deputy Trina Schrader of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide detectives, who were assisting the Bell Gardens Police Department in the investigation, were summoned to the scene, where the victim was pronounced dead, Schrader said.
Bell Gardens officers, who were responding to reports of shots fired from area residents, located the victim, a 36-year-old man suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, in an alley on Buell Street, Schrader said. It appears the victim had been in the alley looking for cans, bottles or scrap metal when he was killed, she said.
The victim also was a known street gang member, Schrader said, but added it was not immediately known if the shooting was gang-related.
The suspect and murder weapon are outstanding, she said.
Anyone with information about the shooting was urged to contact the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Bureau at (323) 890-5500. To provide information anonymously, people may call Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-TIPS (8477).
Efforts to reach a plea deal with no jail time have fallen apart for the wife of slain Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo Sr., who claims she shot and killed him in self-defense after enduring years of abuse at his hands, her attorneys said Monday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy asked whether a plea deal had been struck when the parties were discussing potential trial dates for Lyvette Crespo, 45.
Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman said, “We tried to, your honor.”
Defense attorney Eber Bayona replied, “We thought we had a deal,” but told Kennedy the offer apparently wasn’t approved by supervisors in the District Attorney’s Office.
“I understand the family had a strong voice in the decision-making,” Bayona said.
He said he believed the parties are now at an impasse.
A pretrial hearing was scheduled for Nov. 30, with a tentative trial date of Jan. 5.
Outside the courtroom, co-defense counsel Roger Lowenstein said two deals had been on the table.
The first, involving a plea of involuntary manslaughter, was withdrawn by prosecutors who then sought a voluntary manslaughter plea. Both deals were for probation with no jail time, he said.
“Lyvette Crespo is innocent. This is a self-defense case,” Lowenstein said, alleging her husband “tortured (her) for 28 years.”
However, given the risk of wrongful conviction, a possible 21-year sentence and a mandatory 10-year term for using a firearm, Lowenstein said it made sense for his client to take the deal and “start healing.”
He called the D.A.’s change of heart “political” and believes the decision to renege the agreement was influenced by the media attention Daniel Crespo’s brother William was stirring.
Last week, when news of a possible plea deal first broke, William Crespo told EGP that he and his family were surprised to hear that Lyvette might not have to do any time any jail.
“I’ve never heard of anybody killing somebody and walking away free,” he said in disbelief and anger.
Atty. James Devitt is representing Daniel Crespo’s mother in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Lyvette soon after the late mayor’s death. According to Devitt, a person convicted of driving under the influence on average serves more time in jail than Lyvette has to date. His clients want Lyvette to serve the maximum sentence possible in state prison, he told EGP,
Devitt believes the D.A. initially considered the plea because prosecutors were concerned about losing a high profile case and taking on a trial that would likely portray Lyvette as a battered spouse.
With no deal on the table, Lowenstein on Monday accused the District Attorney’s Office of “unprofessionalism” and “playing with people’s lives” in withdrawing the deal.
He also dismissed the idea that higher-ups were responsible.
“If Beth Silverman wanted this deal, she would go in and fight for it,” Lowenstein said.
Silverman could not immediately be reached for comment and a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office said they do not comment on plea negotiations conducted outside of open court.
Crespo was indicted by a grand jury on a voluntary manslaughter charge in the Sept. 30, 2014, shooting death of her husband.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators have said the mayor and his wife were arguing when their then-19-year-old son, Daniel Crespo Jr., intervened, leading to a struggle between father and son.
Lyvette Crespo claims she was protecting the couple’s son when she grabbed a handgun and shot her husband, who had allegedly punched the young man in the face.
Bayona contends that Daniel Crespo “was a man who abused not only his wife but other women” and mentally and physically abused his children.
Valerie Alvarez, who runs the Facebook domestic violence support group “LYVETTE CRESPO, WIFE, MOTHER AND NOT GUILTY” told EGP she has hope any potential juror will see that Lyvette’s actions were justified following years of domestic abuse.
“People are starting to realize you can’t just get up and leave,” she said.
William Crespo has denied allegations that his brother was abusive, but said the mayor had a series of extramarital affairs that angered his wife. He claims Lyvette threatened her husband, was planning on leaving him but “wanted him dead.”
The multi-million dollar civil lawsuit filed Oct. 20, 2014, by Daniel Crespo’s mother alleges her daughter-in-law picked a fight with him knowing that their son would intervene, then opened a safe, grabbed a gun and killed her husband “with malice and in cold blood.” The suit is has been stalled until the criminal case comes to an end.
“I miss him everyday.” said William Crespo, while starring at a photograph of his late brother. “Whateverw happens we just need to let him rest in peace.”
EGP Staff Writer Nancy Martinez contributed to this report.
Two years after the fatal shooting of Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo, rumors are swirling that a court hearing Monday may lead to a plea deal for his wife Lyvette, who faces voluntary manslaughter charges in his death.
Wary that a sympathetic jury would be persuaded by the defense’s depiction of Lyvette as a longtime victim of physical abuse at the hands of her husband, prosecutors are considering a plea, ABC7 first reported Wednesday.
James Devitt is the attorney in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Lyvette by members the late mayor’s family. He warned members of the Facebook group “Justice for MAYOR Daniel Crespo,” that the plea deal would be presented before Judge Kathleen Kennedy Monday in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. He added that the plea would mean no jail time for Lyvette.
“They want to give [her] probation,” he wrote. “We need to object to Judge Kennedy.”
“pls come to court Oct. 17,” he urged.
According to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s investigators, Lyvette and her husband were arguing Sept. 30, 2014 when their 19-year old son Daniel Crespo Jr. intervened, leading to a struggle between the two men. Crespo Sr. allegedly punched his son and that’s when Lyvette allegedly grabbed a handgun and shot her husband three times in the chest.
Lyvette pleaded not guilty last year to the voluntary manslaughter charge after being indicted by a grand jury. She was released from jail after posting $150,000 bail.
Her attorney claims the shooting was justified because his client was the victim of years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her husband, and was defending herself and her son when she shot him.
A 1,500 plus page grand jury testimony released last year revealed sordid details of the case including allegations of abuse and serial infidelity by Crespo. Both of Crespo’s children – Crystal Crespo and Daniel Crespo Jr. – testified their father had verbally and physically abused their mother over the years,
According to the transcript, Crespo had multiple affairs during his marriage, including a “faux wedding” ceremony in Las Vegas with one mistress. On the day of the crime, the couple argued over the mayor’s alleged affairs, according to the testimony.
Prosecutors told grand jurors that Lyvette repeatedly provoked her husband and witnesses claim she repeatedly threatened her husband.
A $50 million wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Lyvette on behalf of Crespo’s mother shortly after the shooting. Family members believe Lyvette picked a fight with her husband knowing that her son would intervene, allowing her to kill Crespo “with malice and in cold blood.”
If convicted, Lyvette could face 21 years in state prison.
4:15 p.m: Adds James Devitt is attorney in a lawsuit filed by members of Crespo family.
For the fifth year in a row, the City of Bell Gardens is being recognized for excellence in financial reporting.
Th city announced last week it had received the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada.
“This award is the culmination of the department’s hard work,” said Will Kaholokula, Bell Garden’s Director of Finance and Administrative Services. “It forces us to research and prepare additional schedules such as management discussion and analysis. Our department employees work very hard in a spirit of full disclosure and transparency, making sure that they process information accurately and provide accountability.”
He added that feedback from the association will help the city continue to grow and improve how the finance department operates.
“We’re not moving backwards,” he explained.
An impartial panel judges the submissions of participating municipalities. The panel evaluates whether the city is meeting the high standards of the program, including demonstrating a constructive “spirit of full disclosure” to clearly communicate its financial information.
Larry Rodriguez, 47, of Bell Gardens was arrested Saturday night on suspicion of stabbing a man in Pomona, authorities said.
The stabbing was reported at 7:21 p.m. at 505 S. Garey Ave., said Pomona police Sgt. Manny Ramos.
“The victim and suspect were involved in some sort of verbal dispute” that turned violent, Ramos said.
“The suspect then stabbed the victim and ran from the location.”
The victim was taken to a hospital with wounds not believed life-threatening, Ramos said. He was identified as 62-year-old Richard Orona of Pomona.
Una serie de medidas que explícitamente prohíben toda la actividad comerciante del cannabis fueron adoptadas en la ciudad de Bell Gardens ante la posibilidad de pronto perder el control sobre el crecimiento y ejecución de la hierba.
La decisión sucedió después de que el gobernador Jerry Brown autorizó una programa estatal de regulación (Medical Regulation and Safety Act en inglés), el cual otorga licencias a dispensarios en California.
A los casi 20 años de la legalización de la marijuana medicinal en el estado, el programa aprobado por Brown intenta clarificar áreas confusas en la legislación cómo la actividad actual no reglamentada.
Bajo la ley, ciudades como Bell Gardens serían requeridas a adoptar ordenanzas o normas de zonificación para regular el uso de la droga entre sus límites municipales. Si esto no se a ejecutado, arriesgarían a que el estado se instale como árbitro final sobre la industria de la marijuana medicinal en la ciudad.
“O actuábamos ahora o dejábamos que el estado decidera”, dijo Abel Ávalos, director del desarrollo comunitario en Bell Gardens.
La ciudad decidió endurecer sus límites municipales en respuesta directa al plazo limite en octubre, de acuerdo a lo que Ávalos dijo a EGP. Además, agrego el director, los cambios también ayudarían a Bell Gardens a regular con más eficiencia el crecimiento y la distribución de la hierba en la ciudad, a pesar de que los dispensarios fueron prohibidos en 2007.
El uso ilegal de la marijuana ha sido un problema para la ciudad, de acuerdo a la concejal Jennifer Rodríguez, quien remarcó la dificultad de imponer las leyes que prohíben el uso en público.
“El olor se siente en dondequiera”, dijo Rodríguez a EGP. “El olor de la marijuana se siente en el gimnasio, mientras manejas -no hay ningún control”.
En noviembre, los votantes tendrán la oportunidad de emitir su voto en contra o a favor de la “Ley del Uso Adulto de la Marijuana” (o Adult Use of Marijuana Act en inglés) el cual legalizaría el uso recreacional de la hierba para adultos mayor de 21 años. La ley también aplicaría impuestos al crecimiento comercial y en la venta del cannabis recreacional.
“¿De qué sirven las leyes si son difíciles de imponer?”, pregunto Rodríguez.
De acuerdo a Troy Henshaw, detective y sargento del Departamento de Policía de Bell Gardens, ellos regularmente reciben llamadas de gente quejándose de jóvenes fumando marijuana en público. Los reclamos a veces son de personas que están parados cerca del infractor y en otras ocasiones son de personas que van manejando detrás de alguien emitiendo una nube de humo notable desde adentro de su vehiculo, explico Henshaw.
“Algunas de las llamadas no resultan en arrestos ya que no podemos localizar al infractor pero en otras veces sí acabamos arrestando o multando a los ofensores”, dijo Henshaw a EGP. “Yo diría que no es un problema grave en los parques públicos pero si recibimos quejas al respecto”.
Según la policía, cada caso varía ya que ellos tienen que determinar si el supuesto infractor tiene una receta médica para poseer la marijuana o no. En el caso de que no estén autorizados, el oficial entonces decide que tan severo tienen que ser los cargos, lo que usualmente acaba siendo determinado por la cantidad de la substancia en posesión.
“Si un individuo es encontrado violando la ley, esa persona puede recibir una multa, ser arrestado por un delito menor o por una felonía y la marijuana es confiscada”, dijo Henshaw.
Desde el 2011, el poseer una onza o menos de la droga es categorizada una infracción con una multa de $100 sin manchar el récord del infractor. Esto es un intento de despenalizar el delito para reducir la carga financiera en las cortes que resulta cuando se enjuician dichas infracciones.
En otros términos, “si te pescan fumando, te multan y te mandan por el lado en que viniste”, se quejó Rodríguez.
La regulación de la marijuana medicinal ha demostrado ser sumamente difícil en varias ciudades locales. Dispensarios ilegales y no reglamentados han afectado a Los Ángeles a pesar de la Proposición D, una medida que limita el numero de los negocios a 135.
La oficina del fiscal municipal de Los Ángeles, Mike Feuer, quien en una ocasión calculó que el numero de negocios ilegales sumaban a 800, tiene en pie un esfuerzo continuo para suprimir estas actividades que están fuera de control.
Mientras que el problema no es tan grave en Bell Gardens, tres dispensarios ilegales fueron abiertos en la Avenida Eastern, cerca del corredor comercial en el centro de la ciudad. Los tres fueron cerrados rápidamente cuando fueron descubiertos por la ciudad, dijo Ávalos a EGP.
“No conocemos de ningún dispensario que opere por el momento en Bell Gardens”, aseguró Henshaw.
La legalización de la marijuana podría atraer nuevos y más grandes problemas como problemas financieros y accidentes y/o actividad criminal a causa de la droga, según Rodríguez.
“Esto es sólo el comienzo y muy pronto tal vez no podremos hacer nada al respecto”, dijo.
BELL GARDENS – Faced with the possibility of losing its authority to regulate the growth and delivery of medical marijuana in the city, Bell Gardens officials have adopted a series of measures that explicitly prohibited all commercial medical cannabis activity in the city.
Their actions come in response to Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of the Medical Regulation and Safety Act, a state-licensing program for dispensaries. Coming nearly 20 years after medical marijuana was first legalized in California, the three-pronged bill aims to clarify gray areas in the legislation that allowed “pot shops” and commercial medical marijuana activities to continue unregulated.
The Act requires cities like Bell Gardens to adopt ordinances or zoning laws to regulate medical marijuana operations within their borders, or risk the state becoming the final arbiter of the medical marijuana industry in the city.
“It was either act now, otherwise the state will decide,” explained Abel Avalos, Bell Gardens’ Director of Community Development.
Avalos told EGP the city decided to tighten its existing zoning codes in direct response to the state’s March deadline, but added that the changes also give Bell Gardens new tools to regulate the delivery and growing of marijuana in the city, activities that have popped up in greater frequency recently despite the city’s 2007 banning of medical marijuana dispensaries.
Illegal use of marijuana is an issue for the city, says Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez, pointing out the difficulty of enforcing laws prohibiting its use in public.
“Everywhere you go you can smell it,” she told EGP in frustration. “You can smell it at the gym, while you drive; there’s just no control.”
In November, voters will decide whether to approved the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” which would legalize marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 years and older, and tax the commercial growth and retail sale of nonmedical cannabis.
The current Medical Regulation and Safety Act only allows cities to ban nonmedical marijuana businesses and to prohibit businesses that also sell alcohol and tobacco to also sell medical marijuana. But according to Rodriguez, the measure fails to adequately deal with enforcement-related issues.
“What good are these laws if it’s difficult to enforce them?” she asks.
According to Bell Gardens Police Detective Sgt. Troy Henshaw, the department regularly receives calls complaining of people, often juveniles, smoking or using marijuana in public. The complaint sometimes comes from someone standing near the offender, other times it comes from a motorist driving behind a vehicle emitting a noticeable smoke and smell, he explained.
“Some of the calls result in no one being located and others have resulted in citations and arrests,” Sgt. Henshaw told EGP. “I would not say it is a big problem in public parks or spaces, but we do receive calls about it.”
Police must evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine if a suspect’s possession of marijuana is legal, looking at such things as whether the person has a medical marijuana prescription card allowing them to be in legal possession of the substance. If not, the officer must make a decision as to how severe charges should be, which is often determined by the amount of illegal marijuana the person’s possession.
“Each situation is different, but if an individual is found to be violating a marijuana law…he or she can be issued a citation, arrested for a misdemeanor offense or for a felony offense and the marijuana is confiscated,” explained Sgt. Henshaw.
Since 2011, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is just an infraction with a maximum $100 fine and no criminal record, decriminalizing the offense as part of an effort to reduce the financial burden on the courts for prosecuting the charges.
In other words, “you get caught smoking, get a ticket and sent on your merry way,” complains Rodriguez.
The enforcement of the medical marijuana industry has proved difficult for many local cities. Illegal and unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries have long been a problem in the city of Los Angeles, with new facilities continuing to pop up despite voter approval of Proposition D, a measure that limits the number of dispensaries allowed to operate to no more than 135. The Office of L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, which at one time estimated the number of unlawful dispensaries in the city to be more than 800, has an ongoing effort to shut down the illegal facilities in what many have described as a constant game of “whack-a-mole.”
While the problem has not been no where near as bad in Bell Gardens, three medical marijuana dispensaries did illegally open along Eastern Avenue, near the city’s downtown commercial corridor.
In “plain sight,” but unbeknownst to the city, the businesses were quickly shut down once they were discovered, Avalos told EGP.
“No known dispensaries currently operate within Bell Gardens,” assured Sgt. Henshaw.
But the legalization of marijuana could bring new and bigger issues, points out Rodriguez.
She believes legalizing marijuana for recreational use will shift the burden of regulation onto municipalities like Bell Gardens, not to mention the issues of enforcement and the financial and societal consequences of marijuana-related crimes and accidents, problems she feels have surged since medical marijuana was legalized.
“This is just the beginning, it’s just starting and soon we may not be able to do anything about it.”