AIRPORT COURTHOUSE — A Santa Monica resident and electric car enthusiast is expected to be arraigned here today on charges that he illegally manufacturers the gas-alternative cars without holding a license.
Paul Pearson, a prop maker in the movie business and common fixture at the annual Fourth of July parade on Main Street where he features his custom-made cars, said he plans to plead guilty to one of the two charges —operating without a Santa Monica business license — but will fight a second allegation that he unlawfully acted as an unlicensed dealer or manufacturer of electric cars; a violation of the California Vehicle Code.
He faces a fine up to $500 and six months in jail for the city violation, and up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for the state charge.
According to the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, the charges were filed as a result of a Dec. 4, 2008 sting operation lead by undercover officers with the Department of Motor Vehicles and several other local agencies, including Code Enforcement, at Pearson’s former garage off Pico Boulevard where he has built several electric cars, including a one-seater he drives every day. He has also modified two vehicles for ZAP Electric Cars.
Armando Botello, the spokesman for the DMV, said the investigation began after City Hall received complaints from neighbors about excessive noise coming from Pearson’s garage. The matter was subsequently referred to the DMV.
Pearson, who became fascinated with the alternative-fuel classification of vehicles several years ago, said he received a call from a man — the undercover DMV agent — late last year inquiring about converting a vintage Ford Thunderbird to operate on electric power.
The man, along with another individual, visited Pearson on Dec. 4, and reportedly asked about purchasing several vehicles that were sitting at the garage, including one the Santa Monican was building for his wife and the one-seater car he drives around town, which was also featured in the Fourth of July parade last summer. Pearson said he refused both offers, pointing out that the car he was building for his wife was not yet certified by the California Highway Patrol.
Both parties then reached an agreement for the price of the Thunderbird conversion, upon which a group of officers from the local fire and police departments and Code Enforcement Division packed into the garage, Pearson said, noting that there were about 16 individuals total, including the two undercover DMV agents.
Pearson said he was issued a cease-and-desist order by the code enforcement officer, to which he responded that he would move out within a few days to a different garage in Van Nuys.
“I took all the equipment out and vacated and left the city and that was satisfactory to (code enforcement),” Pearson said. “The DMV then stepped up and said we are going to cite you on a misdemeanor charge of manufacturing a car without a license.
“I said this car you talk about is legally manufactured as a specially constructed vehicle.”
The car that Pearson is referring to is a small green and yellow one-seater vehicle that he built about two years ago, receiving approval from the CHP as being legal. A spokesman for the Culver City CHP office said that the car was approved under California Vehicle Code 385.5, which allows certain low-speed, or Neighborhood Electric Vehicles.
Pearson adds that the car also applies under California Vehicle Code 580, which permits specially-constructed vehicles — cars that are not built by a licensed manufacturer and are for private use only.
He said the case is costing him a lot of money.
“I was forced to hire a lawyer because of the misdemeanor and the lawyer charged a $2,500 retainer to make a couple of court appearances,” he said.
While he said the state charges pertain to the one-seater vehicle, Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades countered that the allegations are in response to the raid last year and the fact that Pearson had agreed to convert a Thunderbird, thus acting as an unlicensed manufacturer and remanufacturer.
The City Attorney’s Office is prosecuting both charges on behalf of the DMV.
“(The allegations) have to do with advertising as a business and when that advertising was tested by the DMV undercover agent, they found he was willing to do a conversion,” Rhoades said, referring to Pearson’s Web site.
Pearson disputes Rhoades’ explanation of the charge, adding that he was told by his attorney that the DMV would not prosecute on the Thunderbird issue because it was the agents who approached him about performing the job.
“Basically these two undercover cops overstepped their bounds immediately by naming an act they wanted me to do,” he said. “You notice if undercover prostitutes solicits a John, they don’t name the act.”
Rhoades said the purpose of the state law is to prevent vehicles made from unlicensed manufacturers from going on the road, noting that it is a safety concern.
“We don’t want vehicles on the road created by people who don’t have any training or expertise or regulations,” Rhoades said.
He added that City Hall, known for its sustainability initiatives, supports environmental conscious programs, but points out that the charges have nothing to do with being green.
“The law requires us to look at any case where anyone is trying to put any type of vehicle like that on the road or starting any kind of business in Santa Monica without a proper license,” he said. “In fact it will help protect green technology and environmentally-based business if we do enforce those laws so no one out there gets hurt or scammed by someone claiming to be such a business.”
Pearson has taken his complaints with the sting operation to the City Council, writing a letter to elected officials on March 30.
“To put it bluntly, stopping me from working on zero emission electric cars for one full year, when any number of less draconian remedies are readily available, does not serve any legitimate goal of the city,” he writes in the letter. “In fact it is enormously counterproductive because it discourages the entrepreneurial innovation that is needed in this country now more than ever.”