- Greggory Moore
A coalition of groups concerned with social justice are calling for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to follow through on a promise they say he made to investigate alleged racial profiling and corruption that led to the improper towing and impounding of hundreds of vehicles owned by immigrant drivers.
A report compiled by the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild alleges “serious abuses of police power, including racial profiling and denial of due process rights” over the last three years in Long Beach by the Sheriff’s Department in general, and one deputy in particular.
The February 12, 2013, report documents the alleged exploits of an unnamed deputy who “targets cars fitting a stereotypical profile of the unlicensed immigrant driver: Latinos driving old vehicles in low-income neighborhoods, Latinos driving cars with religious objects or air fresheners hanging from mirrors, Latinos picking or dropping off their children at schools in low income neighborhoods etc.”
The report summarizes interviews with numerous “victims of racial profiling who were pulled over when there was no probable cause for the traffic stop and the victim was simply asked to show a driver’s license [or] pulled over on a pretext and told they were stopped to be given a ‘warning’ about a non-existent traffic or equipment violation such as ‘checking’ a car seat.”
The report claims that the deputy’s sole purpose for all such stops was for the “opportunity to determine that the driver does not have a current California license. The driver was then cited for CVC § 12500 (no license) and the vehicle impounded for 30 days.”
Alleged victims of such practices repeated their stories at a press conference held last month in Drake Park. Alicia Carrera, for example, claims the deputy in question pulled her over and demanded her keys on the grounds that he needed to check the carseat in which her daughter was secured, a carseat he shortly found to be installed properly.
“I said, ‘Okay, give me my keys. It’s time for me to go,'” Carrera relates through a translator. “[But] he said, ‘No, I need to see your driver’s license.’ I said, ‘Why? If I didn’t commit a crime, why do I need to show you my documents?’ He said, ‘I’m an official, so you need show me your driver’s license.’ When I told him I didn’t have one, he said, ‘Oh, I knew it!'”
Carrera says that as she debated with the deputy after he called a tow truck to confiscate her car, he began to yell, telling her “to go back to my own country, where I wouldn’t be bugging people of this country and frightening her daughter to the point of tears.
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, stop talking to him,’ Carrera recalls. “‘He’s going to take you away!'”
A woman identifying herself only as “Yusnei” has a nearly identical story. She says that when she explained to the deputy that she was trying to obtain her driver’s license through DREAM Act, his response was, “It’s your loss, but it’s someone else’s win.”
“When he told me that, it affected me so much,” Yusnei says, beginning to cry and relating that she was unable to afford the $1,200 impound fee to get her car back. ” I lost my job. I have two kids to take care of. […] My daughter now see the officers and gets scared.”
In March, Sheriff Baca and other representatives of the Sheriff’s Department met with coalition representatives and community members to hear their stories and concerns. Days later, Baca sent an e-mail to National Lawyers Guild attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker, saying that deputy “was immediately transferred” from Long Beach. However, Yusnei and other community members say they spotted the deputy in Long Beach as recently as July.
“We were promised that under no circumstances would this deputy be allowed back in Long Beach for any reason,” says Joanna Diaz of Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization. “But very shortly after we saw him again. When we brought this to the attention of the [deputy’s] captain at the time, we were assured that that must have been him, [even though] our community recognizes him very well. His face has been burned into their memory, unfortunately.”
Yusnei is one of those community members. She says she spotted the deputy in Long Beach on July 5 and she took photographs of his license plate to document his presence. The coalition says they presented these photos to the deputy’s immediate superior at the time and were told that the deputy was “everyone was dispatched down [to Long Beach] for 4th of July weekend.”
The Sheriff’s Department confirmed to Random Lengths News that the deputy in question was transferred out of Long Beach, but otherwise declined to comment, citing the issue as a personnel matter.
The coalition alleges that part of the deputy’s motivation for targeting immigrant drivers may have been related to an improper relationship he had with Kruger Tow of Rancho Dominguez, the tow yard the coalition says was employed in every instance in question, a practice that violates Sheriff’s Department policy that multiple tow yards are used in rotation.
However, the coalition declined to provide RLn with copies of the citations. A representative of Kruger Tow told RLn that the company is part of the rotation of companies that the Sheriff’s Department calls for towing services, but that otherwise the company is not allowed to comment on the procedure, referring RLn to the Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff’s Department did not reply to RLn query into this matter.
The coalition, which is headed by the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization and the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, praises the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown for passing into law the AB 4 (“the TRUST Act”) and AB 60, which the coalition labels as “two landmark pro-immigrant pieces of legislature that will dramatically change how law enforcement interacts with the immigrant community.” AB 4 prohibits the detainment of undocumented immigrants for minor infractions if they are otherwise eligible to be free from custody, while AB 60 makes it legal for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
But because AB 60 will not take effect until January 1, 2015, and because the licenses in question will note that the driver’s are not citizens, the coalition notes that the underlying issues are not completely put to rest and are calling upon law enforcement to change their impound policies.
“We have discussed the new laws with some of the mothers affected in this towing case, and their response has been one of qualified excitement,” says the Long Beach Immigration Rights Coalition’s Laura Merryfield. “Most mothers are happy to just have the privilege to drive legally, without fear. But the fact that the licenses are marked does not eliminate the possibility for discrimination. Though a law enforcement officer could no longer impound the car of a licensed or privileged driver, many community members are afraid of carrying a card that essentially outs them as undocumented immigrants. As we wait for this law to come into effect, we will still continue to advocate for a change in impound policy, and we will be vigilant in monitoring any discrimination or officer abuse when the new licenses begin.”
In a press release, the coalition points to cities that have less punitive policies against undocumented immigrants.
“This abuse of power by a [L.A. County] Sheriffs deputy points to why [current] towing and impound policies must be changed,” the coalition says. “[…] The towing and impound policy for undocumented drivers creates an environment that encourages racial profiling and exploitation of immigrants by law enforcement agencies. […] The Sheriff’s Department should follow the lead of other major law enforcement agencies in California that have adopted fairer and more humane impound policies that minimize use of punitive 30 day impounds, including the police departments of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Berkeley and the City of Los Angeles.”
Among the changes the coalition suggests are “allow[ing] unlicensed drivers to call a licensed driver to retrieve the car or park the car legally, and sign a waiver form releasing the County from liability once the car is safely parked,” as well as “refrain[ing] from impounding vehicles for 30 days when the drivers has an expired California license, or an out of state or foreign jurisdiction license.”