Kicked to the curb: Undocumented residents’ struggle to stay behind the wheel
on October 4, 2011
On Aug. 8, Pedro Gutierrez was driving to his job as a carpenter in his black 1992 Ford Mustang. He turned off Cutting Boulevard just a block away from his work when he spotted a police car flip a U-turn to follow him.
Gutierrez, an undocumented resident, saw blue and red lights behind him and realized that he was being pulled over.
He steered his car to the side of the road. The police officer parked behind him, then walked toward the window. Gutierrez wasn’t nervous — he had been pulled over before on that very same road before and was only given a warning about not having a driver’s license.
What happened next depends on whom you ask. Police say Gutierrez was pulled over for a mechanical violation —tinted windows — and was taken into the station after he was unable to produce a driver’s license or other valid form of identification. He gave the arresting officer conflicting information,authorities say, and cops are required by law to verify ID before making any sort of citation.
Gutierrez, on the other hand, stood before the Police Commission a month after being pulled over to publically complain. Juan Reardon and Roberto Reyes of the Richmond Progressive Alliance accompanied him, saying the arresting officer harassed Gutierrez.
“Roberto Reyes said he was there to support his friend, Pedro Gutierrez, who was arrested for no real reason,” read the minutes from the September Police Commission meeting. “… He said that racial profiling is happening now with Latinos in the community and asked that the commission would move on this and speak for the community.”
The minutes continue that, “Pedro Gutierrez said that there was no reason for him to be detained because he has no criminal record. He came to the meeting tonight to make a report to the chief so that that police officer won’t do the same thing to somebody else.”
The Richmond Police Department is investigating what happened that morning, but the incident has become a catalyst for debate about Richmond’s status as a “sanctuary city” and police treatment of undocumented residents. The issue has materialized in meetings between police and constituents, and among advocacy groups who are focused on dealing with Richmond’s changing demographic.
“Solving this disconnect can get caught up in those facts,” Richmond Police Capt. Mark Gagan said. “They’ve made a huge allegation of misconduct, racial profiling [and of] violation of civil rights.”
The Central American crisis of the 1970s and 1980s led to a huge influx of immigrants in the United States, and there was a movement to offer a safe haven to those fleeing persecution.
Officials came up with the concept of “sanctuary cities,” places that don’t condone the detention of non-citizens without probable cause, and don’t assist with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids aside from back-up in an emergency.
Richmond was declared a sanctuary city in August 1990, making the city one of just 31 in California.
Still, Gagan said, “A large important group of community is unsure and suspicious of our protocols.”
Gutierrez said he drove his Mustang on long trips, to Reno and Los Angeles, and that he never had a problem with the police before. Now, his eyes flit nervously to passing police cars, tracking them as they cruise by.
Some of the community’s distrust is due, in part, to a series of nationwide ICE raids in 2004. The searches caused a $1 billion loss for the agricultural crop industry in the Western United States, according to a 2007 Richmond city resolution.
“It was ICE, but people thought it was the police,” Gagan said. “And people I had been working with for 10 years were calling me and asking, ‘What did you guys do?’ There were all these sensational stories and I had no idea about what had even happened, I had no idea about any of it.”
The term “sanctuary city” is troubling, said Aarti Kohli, Director of Immigration Policy at the Warren Institute, as it insinuates a sort of all-encompassing shield from ICE.
“There’s a perception that local jurisdiction can protect people them from persecution and it’s just not true,” she said. “[Local authorities] want to signal to the immigrants in their community that they support immigrants and their primary goal is not to deport people. But they only have so much control over that.”
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security apprehended 517,000 foreign nationals, 83 percent of whom were natives of Mexico, according to DHS statistics. This month, ICE agents arrested 2,900 undocumented immigrants from across the nation in what was known as “Operation Cross Check.”
Although ICE officials asserted that those picked up in the recent sweep had criminal backgrounds, inevitably, individuals without criminal backgrounds do get deported.
“This is a human story, this is people’s lives,” Gagan said. “[Undocumented residents] driving down the street are afraid that if they look over and see a cop that in 10 minutes they’ll be in handcuffs and that in 20 minutes they’ll be in bus to a detainment center and then deported.”
Richmond’s current standards for dealing with undocumented residents state that the city “welcomes and values all of its residents and supports them to live and work free from discrimination, hostility, abuse, violence, exploitation and the fear of local, state and federal law enforcement.”
However, even things as simple as a traffic stop can challenge the system in place.
“I’ve been a cop here for 18 years,” Gagan said. “I don’t know of anyone who has been deported because of anything we’ve done.”
In 2009, Richmond police officers noticed that DUI and license checkpoints were scaring undocumented residents who worried about questioning and having their vehicles towed. Checkpoints could not be entirely abolished, as they were funded by grant money and considered a “best industry practice.”
The police department decided that, rather than impounding or towing the cars of those with a suspended or revoked license or those who have no license at all, they would allow others to drive the cars to a safe location. CCISCO Community Organizer Apolonio Morales said the change was crucial.
“If a system could prevent the unnecessary heartache of having a family walk home or take away their only means of getting to work… it needs to be reconsidered,” Morales said.
Community groups would line up during checkpoints and volunteer to drive cars, Gagan said. The policy was enforced uniformly, regardless of race or gender.
However, the checkpoint changes have not led to new regulations for traffic stops. After seeing that Gutierrez had no form of identification, the officer told Guiterrez that his car was going to be impounded.
A tow truck arrived to take Guiterrez’s car to the lot and Guiterrez was put in the back of the officer’s vehicle to properly identify him at the police station.
Because, as Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus wrote in an email to Juan Reardon, “the Department is still working on a new policy related to traffic stops,” there is no regulation saying that the cop was wrong in having the car impounded.
“At this point, we have no policy in place that forbids an impound of a vehicle being driven by an unlicensed driver,” Magnus wrote. “The laws are complex on this topic and different law enforcement agencies around the State are handling these violations in very different ways.”
Morales said community members call him an average of four or five times within a two-week span to seek help in retrieving their towed cars.
When cars are impounded, a private towing company takes the vehicle into its possession. Cars can be held for up to 30 days and — between the Richmond Police Department release fee, the cost of impounding and transferring cars to the towing yard and the daily storage cost — car owners pay a minimum of $1,673 to retrieve cars held for that period of time, which doesn’t include the cost for mechanical or moving violations or other traffic court costs. If the recovery cost is more than the car’s worth, towing companies can lien sale the vehicle without the owner’s consent.
Gutierrez’s car was impounded on the day he was pulled over. Although it wasn’t supposed to be sold because the case is still under investigation, Gutierrez said the receptionist with Freeman Towing looked up his car on her computer and simply told him it was gone.
Representatives from Freeman Towing would not confirm any details about Gutierrez’s car, only noting that cars become their property after 35 to 45 days.
Guiterrez assumes his vehicle went to auction.
“I don’t know what happened to my car,” he said. “Now, it’s too late.”
While it does appear that the department is accepting and understanding of minority groups, undocumented residents cannot drop their children off at school or go to work without worrying about whether their vehicles will be impounded.
Basic traffic violations like rolling stops and broken tail lights is “just paying tickets” to some, said Morales. “For others, it’s a livelihood.”
If Gutierrez had a form of accepted, legitimate identification, he may not have been brought into the station to certify his basic information. Perhaps he would have only received a citation and maybe he would still have his car today.
Reardon and the Richmond Progressive Alliance have worked to distribute a Municipal ID card, which would eliminate identification issues if non-licensed drivers are pulled over. This particular photo ID card would also work as a debit card, as many undocumented residents, unable to open bank accounts without the proper identification, often carry all their cash and are targets for robbery.
Morales said the city is in the process of finding a bank to support the debit card program and help finance the project.
Gagan said the police department is re-evaluating its towing policy as it relates to traffic stops as well as seeking clarification from the California Supreme Court to ensure that the police department is not legally obligated to tow certain cars.
“It’s not based, actually, on this complaint,” he said. “This has been going on for some time.”
Two statewide initiatives, AB-353 and AB-1389, could also protect unlicensed drivers from arrest and having their cars impounded at checkpoints in addition to changing checkpoint laws. These bills are two of 600 on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk that must be vetoed or approved by Oct. 9.
Kohli said she couldn’t speculate about whether these bills might pass, although she added that they are promising for undocumented residents and Governor Brown “seems more understanding of the situation that unauthorized immigrants face in the state than his predecessor.”
Morales conceded that, whether or not the initiatives are approved, more should be done within Richmond and Contra Costa County to protect undocumented residents.
“Because we have a broken immigration system, we have to look at local solutions,” he said.
Gagan said the issues under review by the Richmond Police Department include renewing towing contracts with certain companies and allowing private towing groups to keep the cars for lengthy periods.
He added that the department is still working to finalize the language of their new policy and the issue is a priority for the department.
And, as for Gutierrez’s claims, the Richmond Police Department is looking into the allegations and will come to a conclusion this week.
“People don’t always trust the mechanism for us to investigate that…there’s a real suspicion,” he said. “But I have to tell you, we do investigate our officers very aggressively.”
However, while Gagan noted that the department is doing what it can to investigate Gutierrez’s incident and to adjust its towing policies, he admitted that the system is intrinsically against undocumented residents, no matter their country of origin.
“Being undocumented prohibits you at face value from getting a driver’s license,” he said. “You just can’t do it, so you’re automatically subject to all the consequences by default. I don’t know how to remedy that.”
Gutierrez hopes to collaborate with his local church to help others who have faced similar hardships. He rides his bike to work now. The trip is just under three miles, which he said is manageable, but he still wishes he could have his car back. Gutierrez had the car customized with special features like rims and the tinted windows that got him pulled over in August.
“I put in a complaint with the police department and the towing company,” he said. “So, we’ll see what happens.”
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