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The sheriff, false alarms, tickets & distracted driving
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Every eighth-tenth of a second it happens.

A burglar alarm goes off somewhere in the United States without an actual crime taking place.

In excess of 36 million false alarms occur each year. The cost of law enforcement responding has been pegged at $1.8 billion.

This is bad news for taxpayers and law enforcement agencies with limited resources. It’s good news for alarm giants such as ADT that operate on 25 percent margins with roughly $3 billion a year in revenues.

False alarms account for about 95 percent of all alarm activations. And given the fact there are 2 million burglaries – or one every 15.6 seconds – law enforcement isn’t going to ignore alarms. That said they have the unforgiving problem of limited resources.

It is the reason why Manteca in 2009 joined many other jurisdictions that require alarm companies take steps to verify alarms first before contacting police. The city also has in place an ordinance that fines residents for multiple false alarms.

The goal, of course, is to cut down on false alarms. They are the result of improperly armed or disarmed systems, alarm malfunctions, pet movements or windows and doors not secured properly. Power outages can also cause them as can weak batteries.

The policy has worked fairly well for Manteca. The goal is not to punish people but to encourage them to make sure their system is maintained and used properly.

San Joaquin County employs a similar protocol. It has slashed false alarm calls substantially to the point  there was just 1,000 in 2013 or less than three a day.

Last year Sheriff Steve Moore came up with a novel idea. Instead of charging $50 for each false alarm call he asked the Board of Supervisors to lower the fine to $35.

Moore had noticed that some people weren’t paying the fines that were part of a system that also educates the homeowner on proper alarm use and encourages them to contact their alarm company to fix malfunctions. Provide the sheriff with a letter from your alarm company that they corrected malfunctions and he then refunds the fine.

The fine was not put in place to generate revenue. It is about cutting costs and making law enforcement more effective by educating people on the need to maintain alarms and using them properly. If they ignore the fine – as many do – then the opportunity is missed to educate and improve public safety.

At year’s end Moore will crunch the numbers. If the false alarms drop or stay the same he might even propose lowering the fine again.

It’s an approach that goes against the grain but there is a method to the madness.

Such a strategy embraces tickets and citations for what they were always intended to be – a chance to educate people by correcting behavior that is detrimental to society as a whole. Just like speeding creates safety issues so does tying up police on false alarms when they could be patrolling or doing other crime prevention tasks.

Moore believes that a similar approach might help turn the tide on the growing problem of distracted driving. The first offense for using a cellphone while driving is a $20 fine. Subsequent offenses are $50 fines each. But the real cost of those tickets are $250 to $300 once court, county, and state fees are tacked on.

State sources estimate in excess of $1 billion in traffic tickets go unpaid in California. While some are from people who never had any intention of paying, a lot are people who are squeezed for money. That means instead of engaging with the traffic ticket justice system that is designed in part to educate and encourage safe driving behavior they opt to do nothing. And unless it is a major traffic infraction not paying the ticket doesn’t have significant consequences.

By making the overall cost of the ticket $50, instead of $300 or so once all other costs are added on top of the basic fine, it could get more drivers to pay up. And in doing so it offers the court system the chance to re-enforce the message the ticketing officer gave them.

Cities such as Manteca have seen a decline in false alarm calls by pursuing a fine system designed to modify behavior through education.

Moore believes such an approach may also work for distracted driving.

It’s an out-of-the-box approach to a growing problem that gets worse with each passing day. 

As the fine system stands now, with add-on costs, a ticket becomes a punishment that many can’t afford instead of a way to correct driving behavior.

It may work, it may not. But one thing is certain: What California is doing now isn’t very effective judging by the number of drivers that talk on cellphones, text, do their makeup, read, or engage in other tasks besides driving while behind the wheel.


This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.