Controversial Impound Policy of Santa Barbara

On August 6, 2010, Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch reported that a retired Santa Barbara resident, Russell Trenholme, partnered with Pueblo, a community organization that aims to benefit low-income households, to produce the study of the police department’s traffic-enforcement data. The study included data documenting citations issued from 2007 through 2009.

“When we look at the statistics on other categories of citations – citations for moving violations, for equipment violations, drunk driving arrests – we find that a 12500 citation is the most common citation given by the Santa Barbara Police Department over the past two years, exceeding the total of all the various moving and equipment citations combined. It appears that impounding vehicles driven by undocumented immigrants is the principal activity of the traffic section.”

The citation refers to the section of the California Vehicle Code prohibiting unlicensed motorists from driving. A separate section of the code forbids those with suspended or revoked licenses from taking the wheel. Those who are caught without a license have to pay $30 per day for 30 days plus additional administrative fees imposed by the city police department. This is a great hardship for anyone living on minimum wage.

Checkpoints generally screen all drivers that pass through the operations. But the study found that during specialized patrols, officers were far more likely to catch an unlicensed driver than during a checkpoint. Many of California’s unlicensed drivers are illegal immigrants, leading Mr. Trenholme to speculate that Santa Barbara police are “focusing attention on the type of vehicles typically driven by undocumented immigrant drivers”.

In 1994, Pete Wilson ran on a bill once considered the solution to California’s economic problems. It banned social services to undocumented immigrants in the state. Fortunately, it was struck down by the California Supreme Court. However, Mr. Wilson was able to push one of the platforms: ban the ability of undocumented immigrants to apply for a California Driver License. Since then, undocumented immigrants have driven without licenses.

impound policyFour days later, in light of Mr. Gabrielson’s report, the Santa Barbara Police Department responded to this impound controversy. Pursuant to Section 14607.6 of the California Vehicle Code, vehicles operated by drivers who are unlicensed or driving on a suspended or revoked license are subject to being impounded for thirty (30) days. No effort is made to target any ethnic group as a means to enforce traffic laws.

Santa Barbara Police Department is in agreement with the California Attorney General’s Office who states that drivers who are unlicensed or driving on a suspended license pose a significant risk to law abiding drivers and pedestrians: higher accident rates, higher probability of being a suspect in a hit-and-run collision, higher probability of being uninsured, and lower probability that the vehicle is correctly registered to the actual owner.

The Santa Barbara Police Department adheres to the law on all enforcement policy, including impounding vehicles operated by drivers who are unlicensed or have a suspended license. According to Chief of Police, Cameron Sanchez, the Santa Barbara Police Department’s policies and practices comply with California law. The Santa Barbara police are making traffic stops legally and that their enforcement makes Santa Barbara a safer place to drive.

The Santa Barbara Police Department should make a case for easing the fines and impoundments on undocumented immigrants’ cars. Or, like the Los Angeles Police Department, support drivers’ licenses for undocumented students.