Towing policy causes concerns

FRESNO -- Ines Rojas was waiting at a traffic light last June and suddenly, her 1988 Toyota Cressida stopped working.

A police officer approached Rojas' car and asked for her driver's license and vehicle registration.

She provided the officer with her registration but Rojas, who is undocumented, did not have a license. So the officer cited Rojas for driving without a license, and he ordered the car towed and impounded for the weekend.

Over the next few weeks, Rojas paid to pick up her car, paid for having her car stored at the towing lot over the weekend, and paid the ticket. The entire ordeal cost her almost $1,000.

Months later, Rojas is still frustrated that she was heavily fined for driving without a license -- an infraction she said she committed in order to provide for herself and her family.

"The police must understand that we drive out of necessity, not for pleasure," Rojas said.

Rojas' story is all too common in cities across the state, where undocumented immigrants have not been able to obtain a drivers license since 1994.

Like Rojas, many undocumented immigrants commit this crime of necessity in order to get to work, buy food for their families, and visit the doctor's office.

When they are caught, they pay the consequences, in the form of hefty bills -- totaling as much as $2,000 -- to towing companies. After paying for the car and other associated costs, people struggle to afford other daily necessities, like rent, food, and medicine.

"When you lose this form of transportation, there are negative consequences in your daily life," immigrant advocate Leonel Flores said in Spanish. Losing a car, he said, "is painful, and is very embarrassing at the same time."

In response to community concerns and stories like Rojas', Fresno police quietly changed department policy regarding the impounding of cars of unlicensed drivers.

According to the Fresno policy, the city police will only impound the car of an unlicensed driver if the person has been cited for the same offense within the last six months. If a driver's car is towed, the police will now make reasonable attempts to ensure the driver is not left stranded along the roadway.

Cities like Richmond, in Contra Costa County, and Pomona, in Los Ángeles County, have also updated their policies. But in Valley cities, like Visalia and Sacramento, police spokesmen said their departments generally tow people's cars when they are cited for driving without a license.

Fresno deputy chief Robert Nevarez said community concerns regarding the cost of having a car towed and impounded was one factor that spurred the department's policy change.

In January, the Fresno police cited 356 people for driving without a license, and cited 343 people in January 2009, according to Nevarez.

"Their ability to sustain themselves is severely compromised," he said. "That's one of the reasons our policy has become a little more flexible in that area.

"We're hopeful that if they're cited, they won't do it again."

But the issue of impounding the cars of unlicensed drivers is more than a financial concern for the immigrant community.

It is also a local reflection of the national need for comprehensive immigration reform, said Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.

"It's the biggest local immigration-related issue I'm working with," said Silverman, who has been assisting community groups in Fresno and other areas. "It has such a profound and negative impact on families when they have their car towed and impounded for 30 days."

Beyond immigration issues, the impoundment of cars of unlicensed drivers raises other concerns as well.

"We are concerned that a lot of times, this impoundment is not necessary, and it could be violating their constitutional rights," said Amalia Greenberg Delgado, an attorney and Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco.

The First Amendment prohibits the unreasonable seizure of property, so unless the driver is putting others at danger, the impoundment may not be required, she said.

The issue also brings up questions about racial profiling, specifically at DUI checkpoints, said Raúl Moreno, coordinator of University Migrant Services at California State University, Fresno.

"What we are against is (the police) doing checkpoints ... and instead of checking for DUI, they end up confiscating a lot of cars, from people who are not driving under the influence," Moreno said. "A DUI checkpoint ends up being an immigration raid.

"I'm not against DUI checkpoints, but I'm against just stopping people only because they look Latino, and taking their cars away because they don't have a drivers license."

When undocumented students lose their cars, they end up working that semester to retrieve their car, and can't afford to pay for classes, Moreno said.

"My students are not doing anything wrong," he said. "They are simply getting from Point A to Point B. They are not driving under the influence, they are simply getting from Point A to Point B."

Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, does not buy any of those arguments.

"Local municipalities should not be instituting policies that make it easier for people who are here illegally to drive illegally as well," Mehlman said.

He dismissed concerns about the financial hardships imposed on unlicensed drivers whose cars are towed, and about people losing their jobs when they lack transportation.

"All these rationalizations are put in place in order to help people avoid the consequence of being in the country illegally," he said.

The Fresno police's updated policy regarding the towing of cars of unlicensed drivers has received mixed reviews so far.

Moreno, of Fresno State, said there is more work to be done on the issue.

"This is not a victory by any means," he said.

He added: "The chief of police does have an ear for immigrant-related issues. That's what it's telling us."

Flores, the immigrant advocate, said the Fresno police's new policy is not perfect.

"It's not perfect, and it's not everything we wanted, but I do think it's a good start," Flores said.

Still, Flores said his group would share the Fresno police's new policy with leaders and community activists in other Valley cities, in the hopes of achieving similar changes throughout the region.

He said achieving changes in local agencies' towing policies is a critical factor in improving the daily lives of immigrants, he said.

"Many organizations are focusing only on immigration reform, which could be one, two or three years away, while forgetting about people's daily lives," Flores said.

"But we are working for immigration reform and, at the same time, working to minimize the suffering of people locally in their daily lives."