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Activists say the SFPD is unfairly impounding and selling cars owned by illegal aliens 

Wednesday, Aug 19 2009
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This week, advocates for undocumented immigrants are scheduled to meet with new Police Chief George Gascon to discuss a problem for city residents without Social Security numbers: having their cars impounded by police after routine traffic stops because they don't have valid driver's licenses.

As it stands, people must pay hundreds of dollars in fees and get a license to reclaim their cars, but there's a hitch: California doesn't issue licenses to undocumented immigrants. Police wind up selling the cars at auction after they have been impounded for at least 30 days. Cue complaints of racial profiling and unjust treatment.

"The police do this just because they know the people are undocumented ... [and ] don't know the laws and are vulnerable," says Miguel Robles, the founder of the San Francisco–based Latin American Alliance for Immigrant Rights, which is pushing for reform in the Bay Area.

Robles and others say the city is misinterpreting a section of the state vehicle code. San Francisco, like other cities in California, contends that cops are required by state law to impound the car of any driver without a valid driver's license. But in 2005, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional to seize a car solely for that reason without demonstrating that the vehicle was a threat to public or traffic safety. Attempting to stop further lawbreaking (i.e., driving without a license) is in itself not a sufficient reason to impound a car.

In a June 8 letter to the police department, the ACLU and various immigrants' rights groups argued that the existing law says police "may remove a vehicle," but does not mandate it. Also, they contend that people with foreign driver's licenses cannot have their cars impounded under state law, since such impoundments are allowed only for driving a vehicle "without ever having been issued a driver's license." State law defines a driver's license as one issued by California or a foreign jurisdiction.

Southern California attorneys are suing eight cities before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for unlawful towing and impound policies. In San Francisco, activists are hoping to change the policy without litigation, and met twice with then–Police Chief Heather Fong.

ACLU attorney Andre Segura says Fong asked the city attorney to review the legality of amending city policy to reflect that vehicle tows are not mandatory. Segura hopes the SFPD will continue to move toward change under the immigrant-friendly new chief. "The city was very interested in our concerns and felt that if they were doing something unlawful they would change it," he said. "We're hoping the new chief will be positive toward it."

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Lauren Smiley

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