San Jose to Stop 30-Day Car Impounds for Unlicensed Drivers

Sean Webby, San Jose Mercury News, Dec. 9, 2010

In a sudden U-turn after years of complaints, the San Jose Police Department is expected as early as next week to stop impounding cars for a month when unlicensed drivers are nabbed for minor traffic violations.

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While the proposal has raised concern from at least one City Council member, immigrant advocates say the 30-day vehicle holds unfairly target undocumented residents. Latino advocacy groups have long protested that the vehicle seizures deprived working-class people of their cars–which cost thousands of dollars in charges and fines to retrieve, often exceeding the worth of the car itself.

The new policy would give officers the option of allowing the driver to park the vehicle and have a licensed driver pick it up that day. If the car is towed, a licensed driver can pick it up almost immediately and pay applicable fees and fines, but without having to wait 30 days.

“I’m so happy. This won’t help me anymore, but it will help a lot of people,” said Inma, whose Nissan Xterra was impounded this year after her husband, an undocumented immigrant with no license, received a traffic citation on his way to work.

It took Inma, who declined to give her full name to protect her husband, a month and about $3,000 from savings and loans to retrieve her car.

“These people are not allowed to get licenses here; they would if they could,” Inma said.

State law allows for such impoundments, but San Jose is joining a host of other Bay Area cities–including Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco–that have recently changed their policies.

“When you have a policy of towing cars solely because the drivers don’t have a license, it really undercuts the trust between the immigrant community and police,” said Mark Silverman, an immigration attorney who has helped community groups craft impound policy recommendations in many Bay Area cities, including San Jose. “That is the major reason that the police have cooperated in this.”

Acting police Chief Chris Moore said he agreed to the change after being approached in recent weeks by City Councilman Sam Liccardo.

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“This is by no means a change that allows people to drive without a valid license. That is still illegal,” Moore added. “But the intent of the tow policy was to remove those drivers from the road, and the problem is that it’s not doing that.”

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But not everybody thinks the change is a good idea.

“I think that unlicensed drivers and drivers with suspended licenses are a huge threat to public safety,” said City Councilman Pete Constant, a former San Jose police officer. “I think when the Legislature created the ability for police officers to impound the cars, they gave them a very, very valuable tool.”

But that tool was so egregious to some that San Jose church-affiliated groups have complained to the city for years.

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