On the morning of January 13, Juliet Miller headed to the Price-101 Freeway stop to catch the light rail to Arizona State University's downtown Phoenix campus.
The nursing student crossed the street to get to the light rail platform as the crosswalk timer was counting down. She saw that she had 18 seconds left.
Then she saw flashing lights behind her. A Tempe police officer on a motorcycle approached and followed her onto the platform, asked for her ID, and handed her a ticket for $206.
Miller was flabbergasted. “$200 is a lot of money,” she says. “That’s more than half of what I pay in rent every month.”
Later, she learned that two of her friends had received tickets while crossing at the exact same spot.
“I feel like it unfairly targets students and people who are poor,” she says. “If you’ve ever ridden the light rail, you know it is not full of rich people. It’s hard to see the whole thing as anything but an extraction of money from people who are going to be most hurt by that.”
The Tempe Police Department disagrees with that assessment, saying that the crackdown on jaywalkers was part of a campaign designed to raise awareness about traffic safety.
“The safety campaign focused on high-density areas in the city of Tempe where bikes, pedestrian and light rail commuters are using,” Detective Lily Duran wrote in an e-mail. “This was an effort to bring awareness and ultimately reduce the number of pedestrian/bicycle collisions in these high-density areas.”
So far this year, the Tempe PD has conducted 352 stops for traffic violations that involved pedestrians and bicycle riders, Duran says. Seventy-six of those were deemed “light rail violations” because they took place on or near a light rail platform.
Ladd Gustafson, a law student at ASU, had a similar experience. As he headed to the light rail platform one morning, he saw the “Don’t Walk” sign was flashing. No cars were coming, so he looked both ways and then crossed anyway.
Suddenly, an officer appeared and asked for his ID, then handed him a ticket. He made it on to the train just in time to get to class.
As the light rail pulled away from the station, he watched officers stop and ticket another woman who was running across the street to try and catch the train before it left.
“It’s not fair, it’s not like anyone on the light rail is making six figures,” he says. “Most of them are students or people who can’t afford a car. It’s almost like a tax on poor people.”
He and Miller both contested their tickets in court, but lost.
Miller says she plans to bring up the issue to the Tempe City Council. She’s frustrated about the vagueness of the statute that she was charged with violating,.
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The statute only says that pedestrians shouldn’t cross the street when the “Don’t Walk” symbol is showing and doesn’t address cases like hers, where the countdown timer shows the number of seconds left to cross.
But mostly, she doesn’t think a law that effectively criminalizes people who are forced to navigate metro Phoenix’s sprawl without a car should exist in the first place. And at the very least, she believes, it shouldn’t carry such heavy fines.
“I’m not a cop hater, and I’m not trying to make it sound like the police department is awful,” she says. “I just think it’s a poor use of public resources to have officers waiting to catch people doing this.”