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Smokers Face New 20-Foot Buffer Zone

January 03, 2004|Bob Pool and Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writers

Smoking out the scofflaws who break one of 2004's new state laws should be easy to do.

Security guards at major public buildings in California need only glance out the front door to see whether anyone is illegally puffing on a cigarette within 20 feet of the entryway.

But most government buildings probably will rely on the honor system in enforcing the newly minted Statewide Smoke-Free Entryway Law, AB 846.

The law, which went into effect with the new year, prohibits smoking within 20 feet of a main entrance, exit or operable window of a public building, including state university and community college buildings. Violation of the law is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine.

Signed by former Gov. Gray Davis, the legislation is a 15-foot extension of a 1993 statewide law that banned smoking within five feet of public buildings. The new law is similar to an ordinance adopted by Berkeley in October 2002.

On Friday, most smokers seemed unaware of -- and unfazed by -- the new rules.

"It's a good law," said Jan Schwartz, a Woodland Hills mortgage broker and real estate agent who was huddled beneath an aqua-colored umbrella a few steps from the entrance to the new Van Nuys Superior Court building as she took a cigarette break. "I know, I'm standing in the rain, putting poison in me. But I support the law."

At an older nearby courthouse that is under renovation, smoker Mike Trangmoe of West Hills tried to stay out of the rain by taking refuge beneath construction scaffolding erected over the building's doorway.

"I own a restaurant and bar, and I wasn't aware of this new law," he said, glancing at two other smokers standing even closer to the courthouse door. "But if the only dry spot is next to the door, I'm going to stand next to it to smoke until somebody says something."

On the other side of the glass door, three uniformed security guards manning courthouse X-ray machines and metal detectors paid no attention to the smokers. Neither did a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy on duty in the courthouse lobby.

That will change, said Lt. Joe Arteaga, divisional operations lieutenant for the Sheriff's Department's Court Services Division.

"One of the things we'll have to address immediately is how that law will be enforced," Arteaga said Friday. Courthouse security guards could find anti-tobacco enforcement added to their anti-terrorist duties.

Nobody inside was fuming about smokers breaking the new law beneath a blue awning in front of Santa Monica City Hall either.

Half a dozen half-smoked cigarette butts floated in an inch or so of rainwater in a pedestal ash tray about five feet outside the City Hall entryway.

At the state Department of Motor Vehicles office in Mar Vista, nervous driver's license applicants stood beneath a dripping overhang to take a few last drags on their cigarettes before going inside.

There seemed to be plenty of confusion about the smoking law, however.

A sign on the door leading to the driver's license examination room -- apparently a leftover from the 1993 smoking law -- warned: "No smoking within 5 feet of this entrance."

But a sign on the entrance to the vehicle registration office read: "Smoking is not permitted within 15 feet of this entrance."

Asked about the discrepancy, a private DMV security officer from Inter-Com Co. who declined to give his name hurriedly replaced the incorrect "5 feet" sign with an incorrect "15 feet" sign.

"You'll have to talk to people in Sacramento" about the 20-foot smoke-free zone, he said.

Workers taking smoke breaks outside places such as downtown's Los Angeles City Hall and the Police Department's Parker Center headquarters predicted that adherence to the new law will be routine -- once the word gets out.

"Thanks for telling me," said Robert Pingel, a deputy Los Angeles city attorney who was taking a quick cigarette break outside his office at the new Braude Constituents Service Center in Van Nuys. "I was unaware of that law."

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