La Verne Magazine
Summer 2001


How Do You Plead?

by Tom Chambers
illustrations by Isela Peña & Christian A. Lopez


illustration by Isela Peña

A causal walk through old town La Verne can provide a romantic evening for a couple, a peaceful stroll for a parent and a chance to review about 25 dozen laws. La Verne, make that Lordsburg was established in the late 1800s, which left plenty of time to create laws, and that's just what the city did. Stops signs are obvious. Jaywalking is usually over looked. The height of one's weeds is a little more obscure, but a $50 fine and 30 days in prison might make you go search your garage for that old weed whacker. There are laws in force everywhere if you just know where to look. Laws on sewage control, fire barricades, noise levels, height of curbs, height of buildings, lettering on buildings, parking distance from curbs, parking time zones, tree shrubbery, traffic lights, curfews, tampering with mail boxes, street sweeping, drinking alcohol, skate boarding, bicycling, trash receptacles and even laws concerning air raid procedures. Behind the pale brick walls of the La Verne Police Department lies a stack of old laws that regenerates history, wastes our time and makes us laugh.

Most of these laws were conceived in the 1920s and '30s when America was a little more polished and paranoid; however, they still have an impact on life today. Laws are passed intermittently, but their connection to history is permanent-until removed by enlightened city councils. They define the time and beliefs of a generation. They show a town's fear, prejudices and habits. An exploration of these laws focuses why La Verne took the shape it has today.

These laws were not passed to justify the La Verne City Council's payroll. They were enacted to serve the public's best interest, "to make little Johnny's walk to school safe." Some of the laws have been repealed, abandoned or just forgotten.

Everyone has heard the phrase, "Don't be a nuisance." Well, La Verne knows this saying and is serious about it. Ordinance No. 137 says it is illegal to be a nuisance in the city of La Verne. What is a nuisance anyway? To most it is your little cousin Kevin. The trash man who leaves your cans scattered in the gutter, the mailperson who is always late. Of course, none of these people is ever arrested or fined for his crimes.

If you do want to stay out of jail and avoid a fine, then don't have a pet rabbit. Ordinance No. 137 stipulates that a rabbit pen is illegal, a nuisance. Apparently in 1934, when the law was passed, there was a major rabbit scare. Rabbits were overrunning the streets of La Verne, becoming a real nuisance to residents. They were running out into roads, performing sexual acts in public, eating all the carrots and creating longer lines at the movie theaters and post office. Something had to be done. Here comes city hall to save the day! Ordinance 137 is meant to save the city from nuisances. The nuisance law is not limited rabbits. Owning a rabbit pen is just one of the offenses listed as punishable by a $300 fine and not more than 90 days in jail.

While Ordinance 137 leaves itself open for humor, others breed fascination. Ordinance No. 182's reflection of history is startling. Passed on Jan. 5, 1941, it states, "An ordinance of the council of the city of La Verne, in the county of Los Angeles, state of California, relating to air raid precautions, and providing penalties for the violation thereof." The fine for this violation is not more than $300 fine accompanied by no more than 30 days in jail.

Today if one were to look up into the pale blue sky of La Verne, most likely the only thing to be seen would be a thin film of smog. However, in 1942, people were a little more skittish when looking up to the heavens. It wasn't the heavens they saw when looking up. It was a memory stained with blood. Just one-month earlier, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The treachery of that event stretched across the Pacific to La Verne. Ordinance 182 shows the paranoia and fear America was living in during World War II. Imagine waking up at 4 a.m. to the deafening sound of an air raid siren, the scramble to grab your kids, whatever valuable possessions you could think of in 30 seconds and the fear as you ran in wet socks across damp grass to an air raid shelter that may or may not be full.

Although this never really happened in La Verne, the terror that it could happen was real.

Just three days after the passage of Ordinance 182, No. 181 followed. It was an ordinance that created the Major Disaster Emergency Council and established its powers. The prospects of an air raid made La Verne face the fact that the town was not prepared for a disaster of major proportions of any kind. In the event of a disaster, the Council would handle matters of transportation, communication, power and light, personnel, law and order, fire protection, water supply, streets and highways, medical, health, sanitation, shelter, rehabilitation and even finance.

La Verne's connection to history is not just limited to war. Ordinance 164 expanded the Pacific Electric Railway Company, spurring a train track upon and across Pomona Avenue in the city of La Verne. The passage of this law paved the way for the future and its passageway through La Verne.

On the lighter side of the law, there is Ordinance No. 9.12.310, which deals with the party animals of La Verne. Every person in La Verne can imagine the havoc and terror that would have ensued had this law not been passed. It states, "No person shall possess, consume or sell alcoholic beverages at any location at which bingo games take place. No person who is intoxicated shall be allowed to participate in a bingo game." Phew. What a relief; we no longer have to fear the perils associated with the keg sucking, shot taking inebriating game of bingo. Thank you city hall. Rumor has it that the city is currently forming a secret task force to curtail the underground society of people who like to drink while they play bingo. May God be on their side.

Not all the old laws of La Verne make us laugh. This one challenges the most basic parts of our fundamental rights as United States citizens. On Dec. 20, 1937, the La Verne City Council passed Ordinance 153. This law states, "An ordinance of the city of La Verne, County of Los Angeles, prohibiting picketing in the said city." Assuming the said city is La Verne and not Beijing, Ordinance 153 conflicts with the Constitution. The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; of abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

There are many other odd ball laws that would amaze and confound logic. Ordinance 105, passed in 1926, prohibits heavy vehicles to drive on the streets of La Verne. How did any thing ever get here in the first place? Ordinance 126 defines what the technical term of garbage is. Most likely the mayor didn't brag about that accomplishment to try and get re-elected. Johnny Appleseed would have been arrested on the spot in La Verne.

Ordinance 126 declares it is illegal to plant trees in the city of La Verne. The fine is only $50, so if Johnny ever links up with Bill Gates, the city could have a serious problem.

To give an accurate idea of how dated these laws are, Ordinance 176 designates which areas of the city are acceptable for residents to burn their waste. Ordinance 112 established that the city clerk's salary was not to exceed $60 a year.

The city, until recently, was a throw back, a sort of a reminder what old town America was like. These laws show the broad strokes of La Verne's formation. Some of the laws still live today, while others have died. They will never truly vanish as history occasionally takes a look over its shoulder to decide the future. The importance of them is not forgotten either.

Whether the old laws are about air raid procedures, rabbit pens, railroads, bingo or picketing, they remind the town of what it once was-a quiet place, tucked against a mountain, where people came to raise their families and live their lives. Its strangeness, individuality and memory of its past, is what sets it aside from the area it sits in. With big brother Los Angeles next door, La Verne can keep its doors locked, create an invisible line and sit content.



illustration by Christian A. Lopez