All four of the fire hoopers who were cited by police last June here in Ocean Beach, were found not guilty this afternoon of having an illegal fire. The judge in the case, Commissioner Peter Doft declared at the end of the infraction trial that he “can’t cite these women for this conduct. This (Municipal Code) section does not apply to this conduct.”
Sarah Edgar, Heidi Estevez, Aesha Shapiro, and Allison Walkey had been cited on June 5th for violating the San Diego City law against having fires in Ocean Beach Park – near Dog Beach. They were all members of a troupe of fire performers called Hoop Unit, managed by Valentina “Unity” Martin, and were practicing at night with their lit hoops.
Around midnight, after having been practicing for an hour, the young women were getting ready to quit. Along came a police squad car, turned on its lights, and the officers proceeded to cite them for a violation of the San Diego Muni. Code. The statute they were charged with was :
San Diego Muni Code 63.0102(B)(11): Fires. It is unlawful to kindle or allow to be kindled any fire or bonfire, or throw upon the ground a lighted match, lighted cigar or cigarette, or anything that would be liable to set fire to any grass, tree, shrub, building or other property;.
The young women – all in the twenties and early thirties – wanted to fight it. If found guilty on an infraction, there was no custody or probation of course – we’re talking traffic ticket level – but there were hefty fines – and any subsequent prohibition on their ability to practice their craft at the beach.
Valentina Martin and most of the girls have been involved in a larger grouping of performers that have coalesced around the issues that their case has raised. They were cited in early June. By late July a coalition had formed. Called the San Diego Fire Coalition, it’s now attempting to work out agreements with the City and Fire Marshall – something that has occurred up in the Los Angeles area -, and at the same time arranging places to practice on private property, as well as other tasks. It is hoped that the group can hammer out something with the authorities so future fire hoopers won’t be cited or worse – arrested -.
This win in court today will be celebrated by this community of performers, and it should boost the Coalition’s efforts in the long run, and at the same time, it may take the edge off their campaign in the short run.
In court today before Commissioner Doft, the performers’ counsel had Valentina show and explain the hoops – two of which had been brought to court – and she actually put on a brief performance, demonstrating how she twirls and moves the hoops – a wonderful scene in what is usually a very, dull traffic court. Martin also explained to the court the performances that she and the group will be doing, how they practice, and especially all the safety measures they take whenever they are practicing.
This was key to their defense. The women were not doing anything illegal because of all the safety measures taken that night – which is the usual. There were two people, called “safeties” standing by with a fire-retardant blanket, treated with a chemical called duvetayne – the same chemical used to treat theater curtains.
The performers wore only cotton clothing as synthetics burn and light on fire more easily. The fuel can had an air-tight lid and is kept at a distance from the fire. They also tape the hoops – and most of all – they train – for months, before they ever perform. During practice, these performers have never dropped their lit hoops.
Another key thing that led to the court’s ruling was that other police officers have allowed the twirlers to practice at the exact same spot that they were cited. Martin explained how fire performers have been practicing in OB for years, and that police have requested that performers do their thing at the beach.
The officers that did cite them, Officers Lockwood and Shultze, were reportedly new to the beach team of Western Division, SDPD. In fact, their superior Sgt Misty Cedrun, had told our blogger Mary Mann that she encouraged the girls to fight it, get it overturned. Mann reported:
“We just have to follow the law as we read it,” Cedrun explains, “but I do encourage them to fight this in court. Let someone who has the authority to decide dismiss it, if they want.”
This statement by the officers’ superior could not come into court, of course, as it was hearsay.
Finally, it was time for a closing argument. Their counsel argued that the law was confusing, to the performers, and even to the citing officers, that the only restricted act according to the statute is lighting a fire that “would be liable to set fire to any grass, tree, shrub, building or other property.” And this didn’t happen, according to the evidence. He argued that their conduct did not fit the statute and the statute did not fit their conduct.
He said that this is something that needs to be worked out between the City of San Diego, the Fire Marshall and the fire performers’ coalition. Copies of an on-line petition in support of the hoopers were also presented to the court. Begun here on this blog, 290 signatories had expressed their support.
Commissioner Doft then ruled. Relying on photos supplied by Officer Lockwood, he offered that there was only dry grass and dirt where they were practicing. He said that this is conduct that some officers think is okay, but other officers don’t think it’s okay.
“It’s up to the City Council,” he said, to pass legislation covering this type of activity. “This is not prohibited conduct.” These people, he said, can never be cited for this again at that location. He then declared them all not guilty and the case dismissed.
Outside the courtroom, everyone was ecstatic and overjoyed. The girls were totally relieved – they can go on with their profession, their hobby, their craft, and for some their livelihood.
“Does that mean we can go back to the very same place and practice?” someone asked. “Yeeess!” was the resounding response from everyone else.
This is a great finale to this chapter of the fire performers’ community. These performers and dancers will be back to OB and on the beach twirling their hoops.
Hey, how do I know all this? I was their lawyer.