San Jose tightens grip on illegal fireworks
Fireworks are illegal in most of Santa Clara County. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

San Jose residents could face harsher consequences for taking part in illegal fireworks this summer.

The San Jose City Council voted unanimously this month to move forward with the Social Host ordinance, which would fine tenants and property owners for fireworks launched on their property, regardless of if they set off the fireworks or not. Members will vote on final approval later this month.

Complaints about illegal fireworks tripled during the pandemic. In response, the San Jose Police and Fire departments doubled the fine for first-time violations from $500 to $1,000. A second violation within 18 months is $2,000, and a third violation within the same period is $3,000.

Jason Ta, police captain for the support services division, said the department received about $37,000 to address illegal firework sales and use for Fourth of July this year. The department plans to monitor places known to be hotspots for fireworks, allow San Jose residents to report fireworks through the 311 app and potentially use drones for law enforcement. Councilmembers mentioned Alviso and Communication Hill as spots with frequent firework activity.

District 4 Councilmember David Cohen stressed the urgency of addressing illegal fireworks as fire season approaches.

“This is a citywide issue,” he said. “There are fireworks every night in my neighborhood.”

If approved, those found in violation of the Social Host ordinance would be required to pay for the emergency response from police and firefighters.

“The purpose of imposing the liability on the social host is to encourage individuals who host gatherings to exercise greater care in ensuring that no illegal firework activity is taking place at their gatherings,” said Deputy Fire Chief Hector Estrada.

Several councilmembers drew a parallel between the fireworks policy and how the city handles illegal street racing.

“We’ve looked at entities beside the drivers: the spectators, the promoters and that’s what we’re doing here,” said Councilmember Maya Esparza. “It’s not just the folks that are setting off fireworks. It’s the hosts, the property owners and anyone allowing these fireworks to happen.”

Councilmember Pam Foley asked about exemptions to the ordinance, such as schools, for those who use parking lots or empty fields for fireworks after hours without the school’s knowledge.

“We really want to get to the social host and not penalize the school district for something they’re trying to prevent as well,” she said.

While Councilmember Dev Davis suggested holding Airbnb hosts liable if their guests use illegal fireworks, Councilmember Sylvia Arenas presented concerns over whether violating the ordinance was a justifiable reason to evict a tenant. If so, she asked that fees and notices regarding the fireworks ordinance be sent after the current eviction moratorium ends in June to not “create any evictions beforehand.”

Arenas also advocated for more outreach and social media publicity so San Jose residents are aware of the harsher consequences for illegal fireworks.

“We have to give proper notice so that we give tenants and landlords time to modify their behavior,” she said.

San Jose has typically had a tough time cracking down on illegal sparklers.

Last year, some firework citations were delivered to the wrong address or issued without proof, leading to residents getting unfairly hit with fines for fireworks they did not set off. A similar problem occurred in 2017 when residents were erroneously cited for fireworks. City leaders said they fixed the issue by requiring residents to provide proof when filing complaints. It apparently did not resolve the problem.

In last Tuesday’s meeting, the council did not discuss how they they’ll prevent similar mistakes this year.

The number of complaints received last year more than tripled from to 6,188 from 1,946 in 2019.

Esparza reflected on her previous experience working with the Red Cross, where she said she saw an entire apartment complex burn down because one tenant used illegal fireworks.

“It’s really about deterrence,” she said. “We don’t want to fine people. We don’t want to impose fees. We just want people to stop doing it.”

The San Jose City Council meets at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can watch the meeting by clicking here. To learn how to participate and make public comment, read this guide.

Contact Patricia Wei at [email protected]

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