May 06, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Last week we looked at home and business alarm systems and little known laws that come into play when law enforcement respond to a false alarm. As I mentioned, False Alarm Ordinances require the registration of alarm systems, and impose a steadily increasing charge for every false alarm turned in. The article was in response to an e-mail from Ron and Sharon, Northern California readers, who received a bill from their local police department for over $2,000 in false alarm penalties. Here is what Ron told me:
Over two months dozens of false alarms from our office were being sent in, and of course the police responded, but we never knew this was happening. We were completely unaware because the responding officers did not leave a notice and, to make matters worse, our alarm monitoring company phoned the office back line — at two in the morning — not the home or cell numbers we provided. Do we have to pay this bill? We canceled the monitoring service, but the company says they are holding us to the remainder of their three-year contract! What is your take on this situation?
Police Department’s View — Tough!
Most cities with a False Alarm Ordinance do not charge for the first response to a false alarm if the alarm owner has a permit. While it varies somewhat, without a permit, a penalty will be charged and you are required to register, but even then there is no separate fee for that first false alarm. Some cities even allow three or four false alarms before they charge a fee. Also, most police departments leave a courtesy notice which indicates the date and time of the response, as a way to help prevent future false alarms. Most, but not the town where my readers live for some reason that I cannot understand.
I spoke with the civilian employee who heads the “Alarm” section at this police department, and have to tell you that common sense did not appear to be part of her job description. Her fractured use of the English language was a stunning example of competence taking a back seat to politically correct hiring practices. Somehow she seemed unaware that her job was more than merely processing alarm applications or sending out bills for false alarms and answering questions from the public — she was a public relations nightmare. Our conversation went like this:
“My readers were completely unaware of the alarm going off, as the monitoring company phoned, not their home, but the back office at 2 in the morning. I confirmed that with the alarm company — they had gotten the numbers mixed up. But the real problem is that your officers never left any kind of a notice — and there were more than 20 responses all at the same time in the morning. Is there some reason not to leave a notice?
“We used to do that but don’t no more. It’s our new policy. They gonna pay the $2,000 for all those false alarms,” she arrogantly said. “But, if a courtesy notice were left on the property the first time, we would not be talking now, so surely some kind of an adjustment can be made. Policies are important, but not leaving a notice sure seems guaranteed to generate income for the police department, not building good will and does nothing to prevent future false alarms if the citizen is unaware of the problem. I know this isn’t your fault, but a policy is no replacement for common sense — If you are unable to reduce the bill, then who could I talk with on behalf of my readers?” I asked, politely.
“Nobody! And that just ain’t my job, and we gonna sue them if they don’t pay up,” Miss Charm, 2006 replied and then hung up.
Liability of the Alarm/Monitoring Company
Should the city sue, my readers need to involve the monitoring service for failure to inform them of the false alarms and possibly the company that sold and installed their system. But this raises a host of other, complicated issues all connected with the contracts they probably signed. I ran these facts by the owner of one of the largest privately owned security companies in the San Joaquin Valley, and on condition of not revealing his name or the name of his company, he confirmed a lot of what I suspected to be the case.
“Most alarm monitoring contracts are very one-sided, run for years, and practically speaking, require you to make the monthly monitoring payments, but if there is a problem, they don’t know you. The typical contract frees them from any kind of liability in the event of a failure, or if the system sends in false alarms. But it does not end there, as they also try to lock you in for years. Listen, no matter what the salesman tells you, you do not have to agree to a long-term contract, and if you are told that, show the guy your door!”
“By far the biggest trap is the typical 3- to 5-year contract. A frequent pitch is, you can keep the equipment, it’s free — but that comes at a steep price, a long contract term. It is a come-on. Nothing is free, as the cost of that equipment (not really all that expensive anyway) is built into the contract term, and that is where we make our money.”
“If the sales, installation or monitoring company has been negligent and you are hit with false alarm bills, don’t let these companies scare you if you tell them that you are going to cancel. See an attorney, explore legal defenses available and send them that bill for your false alarms, unless it is because of your own fault.” he urges.
One possible defense to any long term contract — typically billed on a monthly basis — is to argue that it isn’t a three-year contract, but in reality a monthly contract for a set number of years. Lawyers talk about these being Severable, or Divisible contracts. Merely because they state, “This is a three-year, non-cancelable contract,” does not make it so. It might only be a month-to-month, renewable contract over a 3-year term at a certain amount — but you will need expert legal advice and should see an attorney at once if faced with this problem, as usually a great deal of money is involved.
Finally, this is one area of the law where it can be money in the bank by paying for a consultation fee and review of the contract before you sign it, and if in trouble, don’t delay — get your lawyer involved at once.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.