Mountain View Voice

News - May 13, 2011

Towed car case costs city $15,000

by Daniel DeBolt

A police traffic stop that left two women and four children on the side of the road, spurring the city to revise its towing policies, has led to an out of court settlement of $15,000.

Police spokeswoman Liz Wylie said the city admits no wrongdoing in settling the claim from Guadalupe Saldana , whose Dodge Durango SUV was stopped by police on June 27. Wylie said a tail light and brake light were out and the exhaust was illegally modified. At the wheel, police found Adrian Herrera, an unlicensed driver who had been arrested several times for driving without a license. Police say that Herrera and Saldana told the officer that they were married.

Police impounded the vehicle, despite the fact that Saldana showed her license and registration to officers to prove that the car belonged to her and that she could drive it home. Saldana was left on the sidewalk, along with her sister and their four children, and the family went without a car for a month. Herrera was booked in county jail for a $5,000 warrant from a previous unlicensed driving violation, Wylie said.

At the time, police impounded a car driven by an unlicensed driver for 30 days in almost every case, Wylie said. But since City Attorney Jannie Quinn received the claim from Saldana, the city has stopped towing in almost every such case. Quinn examined several court cases and practices in other cities, which highlighted an area where officers needed "further training," Wylie said.

Wylie said in March police were alerted to a temporary new policy in a "training and information bulletin." It asked officers to consider a "community caretaking doctrine" created by the courts, which means "we only impound if it is in the best interest of the community," Wylie said. In many cases a car belonging to an unlicensed driver can be parked somewhere safely or picked up by a licensed driver.

Saldana filed a claim with the city for $250,000 in damages. The claim alleged that the city violated her fourth amendment rights as the towing of her car was an "illegal search and seizure." Saldana's Palo Alto lawyer, Sean Coutain, points to a 2005 court decision, which states in part that "the policy of impounding the car without regard to whether the defendant can provide for its removal is patently unreasonable."

The claim said Saldana suffered emotional distress from the police officer's "racially motivated comments regarding her family's clothing and suspected gang affiliation" and for stranding Sladana, her sister and four children with ages ranging between nine months and nine years old.

Following Saldana's claim, officers are no longer ordering very many tows, Wylie said. Tows are down 82 percent in the first four months of this year compared to the same period last year.

But officer's still have to determine when not towing the car could jeopardize the safety of the public. Wylie said police were still within the law when the decision was made to tow Saldana's SUV.

"If Herrera had previously been convicted of driving without a driver's license before and had been arrested five times for driving without a license, and she still elected to have him drive her car illegally, you could actually meet the community caretaking standard and say this person is creating a danger on the road. At what point do you say 'enough already, we are impounding the car?'" Wylie said.

Wylie said the new policy is aimed at those who have expired licenses or have not obtained a license, as is the case with many undocumented immigrants who are prohibited from doing so. Those with suspended or revoked licenses would still have their cars impounded.

The city is still working a permanent policy, Wylie said.

Other cities have been accused of bilking large numbers of unlicensed drivers for impound fees, especially at DUI checkpoints in poorer neighborhoods. Wylie said the city receives $150 of the fine for each tow, with the rest of the fine going to the tow yards. Before fees increased in July 2010, the city's fee was $75. The city brought in $85,800 in fees from vehicle tows in fiscal year 2009-10. Since July 2010, the fees have totaled $88,700.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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