The Price of Justice
By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
Imagine coming out of your favorite coffee shop to find a bunch of witnesses surrounding your freshly sideswiped car, telling you the driver who did it just drove away.
That’s what happened to ACLU lawyer Jessica Price after returning to her 2005 Acura from a local Starbucks in North Hollywood on May 11, 2014.
“This guy just hit it and flipped off the witnesses,” Price said.
Fortunately, one of the witnesses took down the license plate before he disappeared. Unfortunately, Price soon learned, the driver’s license plate was afforded “confidential status” by the State of California.
Vehicles with confidential license plates conceal the addresses of local, state or federal employees, their spouses and their children. State law allows police officers, state public defenders, district attorneys and judges to request that their address be kept confidential.
By late June of last year, Price’s insurance company, Bristol West Insurance Group, discovered the vehicle that hit her belonged to a Los Angeles Police Department officer. Five months later, Price’s insurance company told her the driver not only had confidential plates, but was uninsured at the time of the collision.
One LAPD spokesman said he couldn’t believe this would be something one of the department’s own would do.
“If that is true, I can tell you one thing, that person should not be a police officer,” he said.
Another LAPD spokesperson, Norma Eisman, said situations involving accident reports are treated like any other accident report. In the case of hit-and-run collisions, Department of Motor Vehicles records are available and Internal Affairs gets involved.
When Price reached out to the LAPD, she was told the officer whose car hit hers had applied for confidential status while working for the Long Beach Police Department a few years before. Therefore, the LAPD’s hands were tied.
Her request that the LAPD cooperate with her insurance company and provide the name of the officer whose vehicle was involved was denied because the LAPD said a prosecutor needed to first investigate the issue.
Six months after the collision, Bristol West told her it was referring the case to its litigation department.
By December 2014, Price had reached out to Long Beach City Manager Patrick West. However, she wasn’t given any information about the vehicle involved in the hit-and-run, so she filed a complaint. Her complaint was answered two months later. The Long Beach City Attorney rejected her claim, stating that “neither the city nor employees were liable” because the “employee involved was no longer an employee of the city since 2007.” This was a catch-22 situation.
In February 2015, the insurance company said it was forwarding the $1,632 case to a collection agency.
Price was told this “happens whenever we can’t find insurance information.” The collections file is still open and the company is still trying to reach the officer. The problem is that collection agencies are legally not allowed to contact a person at his or her place of employment. The collection agency told her that if it were unsuccessful, the file would go back to the insurance company, uncollected.
Around that time, LAPD Officer Fernando Cuevas, who was identified as the owner of the vehicle that sideswiped Price’s car.
This past May, the California DMV responded to a Public Records Act query from Price stating that there were, at the time, an estimated 150,184 vehicles registered in the Confidential Record Program.
Price contacted Random Lengths News and told her story. Both the LAPD and the LBPD were contacted about their policies regarding these situations.
The DMV stated it was only able to give out 2014 and 2013 statistics. According to the DMV, as of Jan. 2, 2014, there were 489,233 driving records with address confidentiality. There were about 8,313 agency name variations. As of April 12, 2013, there were 360,058 vehicle records with address confidentiality and about 11,000 agency name variations. This is nearly a 36 percent increase in just one year.
“Insurance companies have access to the current registration record, with addresses on file,” read an email from Artemio Armenta, a DMV representative. “If the registered owner has address confidentiality on file, they will get the name of the employer (for example: LAPD, SD Superior Court, etc.)
“Insurance companies may submit their inquiries to the DMV through their requester code.”
LBPD explained how it handled confidential license plates:
“This is managed by our Accident Investigation and Traffic Detail,” said Megan Zabel, a spokeswoman for the department. “There is a DMV form that eligible employees can fill out, and it is submitted by the police department to the DMV. If they meet the criteria within the law, then DMV will grant confidentiality. This is done on a voluntary basis, only if the employee wants it. They are not required to have their plates confidential.”
The department will send notice to the DMV if an employee with confidential plates has been terminated or has been convicted of a crime, but the law states that they get to keep the confidentiality for up to three years to allow time for an appeals process. If an employee retires or resigns from the department in good standing, the law allows them to keep the confidentiality indefinitely.
“If an employee moves from one law enforcement agency to another (what we usually refer to as lateraling to another agency), the employee should re-submit a request through the new employing agency so it reflects on their DMV status where they are employed, but either way, they are still entitled to the confidentiality,” she said. “The DMV record will reflect the name and insurance carrier of the individual; it only conceals the individual’s home address.”
Zabel explained that if a hit-and-run accident occurred within the Long Beach jurisdiction and the reported license plate turned out to be the confidential plate of an LBPD employee, then a criminal and internal investigation would be launched.
“I can only speak to what would happen in Long Beach,” Zabel said. “The Accident Investigation Detail would handle the criminal investigation into the hit-and-run. Internal Affairs would handle an internal personnel investigation if it is believed an employee was involved in any kind of misconduct (being involved in a hit-and-run accident would most likely be considered misconduct).” But the consequences of such an investigation. After all, driving without insurance and leaving the scene of an accident are both against the law.
The process is different if the accident happens in another city, because Long Beach would not be in charge of the investigation.
The California Department of Insurance said it could not comment on the matter because there could be variables, referring back to law enforcement. Price’s insurance company also was called, but no one has responded to repeated calls.
In the end, because of confidentiality rules the insurance company and collection agency are not able to get the driver’s license suspended or take him to court, because they only release the address of an employer and the name of the insurance company, but not other relevant information such as date of birth.
The other problem is at least two LAPD officers share the name of Fernando Cuevas. Without the cooperation of either the Long Beach or Los Angeles police departments, it’s nearly impossible to find out the exact number of Southern California officers named Fernando Cuevas.
At this point, Price’s only course of action is to sue every officer in the LAPD named Fernando Cuevas, and let the courts decide which one of them is hiding behind a badge and abusing the privilege of confidential license plate protection to avoid paying up for scraping the driver’s side of Price’s car while it was parked outside a Starbucks.
Meanwhile, her insurance company has paid out $1632, of which she has paid a $1,000 deductible.