Long Beach promised to get tough on fireworks before the Fourth of July last year with a new law that allowed the city to threaten homeowners with tens of thousands of dollars in fines if anyone set off fireworks on their property.

But one year later, as residents continue complaining about fireworks in the lead-up to Independence Day, city officials say the harshest penalties, ones they hoped would deter bad behavior, have not been brought to bear.

A year on, nobody has been targeted with the city’s “host liability” law, which lets the City Attorney’s Office issue civil penalties to property owners, charging them for Fire and Police department response to fireworks.

The city did issue 15 citations for fireworks around the Fourth of July last year. Officials also seized over 23,000 pounds of fireworks and made 38 arrests in the months leading up to the holiday last year, but none of the cases were subject to the “host liability” law’s fees, which officials said could range from $5,080 for a small fireworks seizure to $19,460 for a larger one.

To help prove these cases, the city last year asked residents to submit photos and videos of fireworks violations to an online portal instead of having to rely on police officers personally seeing the violations, as the city’s previous fireworks laws required.

Despite that, the city hasn’t actually pursued any of the increased fines. Deputy City Manager Linda Tatum said the city chose not to because it sought to inform residents about the heightened penalties first, as the new fines were adopted just weeks before July 4.

Instead of spawning court cases, the evidence submitted to the fireworks complaint portal has guided where city officials focus their education efforts about the new law.

City officials are hopeful the education has worked. A memo published by the city last week showed that calls for service for fireworks have decreased. In the period from April to June, city data showed that 2021 calls for service (2,043) have dropped off sharply in 2022 (99). However, the 2022 data is only through May 12.

Tatum said the city intends to begin issuing the increased fines this year and urged residents to help by continuing to submit evidence. But some residents are already frustrated that it’s taken this long.

“The enforcement is just not happening,” said Joshua Hodges, who said he plans to hunker down at home this holiday out of fear that his house could catch fire. Last year, he explained, the empty field near his North Long Beach house caught fire twice in a week; then a neighbor’s garage burned. Hodges blamed fireworks for both.

Central and North Long Beach have been historic hotspots for fireworks use, something that prompted Hodges to retrofit his home with new windows and insulation when he and his wife prepared for their newborn baby to come home in 2021.

“Why should I have to spend so much money because the city and the police aren’t going to do their job?” Hodges said.

As they do every year, Long Beach police plan to flood the city with as many officers as possible during the holiday. And Richard Mejia, a spokesperson for the department, said that officers are instructed to cite any individual who is observed lighting fireworks in the city limits. All fireworks are illegal in Long Beach.

But in addition to those citations from police, the City Attorney’s Office can also issue its own fines—and officers play a role in that process, as well. When police respond to calls for service, officers are tasked with documenting evidence, like spent fireworks, as well as reviewing footage provided by neighbors.

The City Attorney’s Office can then use that information to issue the new “host liability” fines, which can apply to homeowners or landlords whose renters may have violated the law.

Those citations are supposed to include the cost of fire and police personnel responding to calls for service, the city attorney staff time used to review the evidence and any costs associated with disposing of fireworks.

In addition to the civil penalties, the Long Beach City Prosecutor’s Office can also pursue misdemeanor criminal charges against alleged violators. Those criminal cases, however, do not guarantee a penalty.

Most of the 34 Long Beach fireworks cases adjudicated last year did not end in a conviction, according to a review of records provided by the City Prosecutor’s Office.

Seven of the cases were dropped or thrown out, and another 16 were handled through a process called “judicial diversion,” which allows defendants to avoid a conviction if they meet certain requirements set by the judge.

Assembly Bill 2124, which codified that process, allows judges wide latitude to suspend misdemeanor court proceedings for up to two years while defendants complete classes or perform community service. If all goes well, the judge then dismisses the case.

Records from the City Prosecutor’s Office show that even some of the most serious fireworks cases, including busts of hundreds of pounds of fireworks for sale, have resulted in judicial diversion.

On July 5, for example, authorities allege a man was caught setting up to launch mortar fireworks, which are illegal across the state. He was cited by officers, but when his case went to court, a judge agreed to divert the case if the man listened to a podcast about fireworks safety and completed 10 hours of community service.

Another man, who was accused last June of using OfferUp to try to sell more than 100 pounds of illegal fireworks he brought across the border from Arizona, which could be charged as a felony under California law, received 100 hours of community service and was required to watch a fireworks safety video and write a summary.

City Prosecutor Doug Haubert said there are some judges who have taken the time to read victim impact statements in court and refused to grant judicial diversion, but he expressed frustration at some whom he thinks aren’t understanding the scope of the fireworks problem.

“Unfortunately there is a lack of follow-through by some of the judges who simply don’t believe fireworks are a problem or don’t live in Long Beach, so they don’t understand the scope of the problem, because where they live there isn’t a problem,” Haubert said.

This year, Haubert says the city is also trying another strategy for enforcement: outfitting officers with formal warnings that informs offenders a second complaint could subject them to prosecution as a nuisance property.

Hodges said things have been a little better leading up to this weekend, but he doesn’t envision the next few days being much different than previous years. He still expects to wake up to a haze that stinks of sulfur and potassium coating his neighborhood July 5.

After living in Long Beach for years now, Hodges said he thinks enforcement is the only thing that’s going to rein in the local fireworks use, which is never confined to just the Fourth of July.

“If it was one day for me, it probably wouldn’t bother me,” he said.

The worst of it though, is undoubtedly concentrated during the Independence Day holiday.

Another resident, Courtney Pettijohn, said she’ll be avoiding the explosions by staying at an Indian Wells condo she’s renting with money she can’t really afford to spend right now. But the alternative is forcing her dog, Tank, to suffer through several days of anxiety and medication.

Pettijohn has lived in Long Beach her entire life, but “if this doesn’t change, we are giving serious thought to moving,” she said. “We love it here, and I don’t want to have to move. But I also think it’s unfair to hear fireworks going off 24/7.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.