Off the hook: Police halt automatic towing for unlicensed drivers | February 18, 2011 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - February 18, 2011

Off the hook: Police halt automatic towing for unlicensed drivers

Change allows a licensed driver to pick up car with no towing, impound fees

by Daniel DeBolt

As it reviews case law on the matter, the Mountain View Police Department has implemented a moratorium on the automatic towing of vehicles driven by unlicensed drivers — unless there is an immediate threat to the public's safety.

Police spokesperson Liz Wylie said the police department and City Attorney Jannie Quinn are reviewing conflicting laws and court cases that pertain to the practice.

"All officers have been directed NOT to tow unless we need to for the sake of the community safety/well-being," Wylie said in an e-mail.

Wylie stressed that the new practice is not set in stone.

In San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, police have implemented similar, permanent policies. It's often the result of advocacy for immigrants who can't get licenses, who are seen as unfairly treated by such policies, especially at DUI checkpoints. Wylie said that it was a review of case law that triggered Mountain View's moratorium, not advocacy for the rights of immigrants, who are involved in the majority of such cases.

Misleading fliers

Contrary to the impression being spread on fliers posted around town, unlicensed drivers are not being allowed to drive away from traffic stops. Police will now have the option to have a licensed driver quickly pick the car up, or to allow unlicensed drivers to leave the car behind and leave the scene by other means, Wylie said. If a driver can't be identified, they are brought in for fingerprinting, Wylie said.

"All of the officers are fully capable of making an appropriate decision on their own, taking into account the totality of the circumstances at hand at that moment regarding that specific case," Wylie said. "Generally speaking, we aren't towing very often right now."

County traffic courts saw 17,000 unlicensed driving cases in 2009. More will be spared over impound fees at the tow yard, over $1,500 at one Mountain View yard. But unlicensed drivers will continue to face fines of up to $1,200 in traffic court.

"It's certainly not like a slap on the wrist," said Jay Boyarsky, the county chief assistant district attorney, of the traffic court fine.

Mike Fortes of Fortes Brothers Towing said he didn't agree with the idea of letting unlicensed drivers off the tow hook.

"It almost encourages people not try and go get their license," he said. "If I don't have a license, I shouldn't be driving."

He added that unlicensed drivers probably don't have insurance to pay for an accident.

Immigrant advocates

But those who have advocated for the rights of immigrants see it differently.

"Traditionally, immigrant rights activists have said that most immigrants can't get licenses but are generally law abiding," Boyarsky said. It is said that "they live here and work here and have to drive. Driving without a license is the only criminal thing they do. We are punishing them when they can't get a license."

During the moratorium, City Attorney Quinn said the city is reviewing two court cases: Miranda v. Cornelius (a 2005 federal court case) and People v. Williams (a 2006 California court case).

In the Cornelius case, a car driven by an unlicensed teen accompanied by a parent was towed even though it was parked in the owner's driveway during the traffic stop. The court ruled against the City of Cornelius, saying, "police officers may impound vehicles that jeopardize public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. Whether an impoundment is warranted under this community caretaking doctrine depends on the location of the vehicle and the police officers' duty to prevent it from creating a hazard to other drivers or being a target for vandalism or theft."

The Williams case also pointed to this "community caretaking doctrine," which Quinn has recommended that Mountain View police use when making a decision to tow.

"An unlicensed driver who doesn't have a licensed person with them — it may very well serve a caretaking perspective to tow that car," Quinn said.

The case law seems to go against the spirit of a 1995 bill authored by state Sen. Quentin Kopp that raised penalties for serious traffic violations through the use of towing. Another 1995 law, Proposition 187, prevents immigrants without residency from obtaining driver's licenses.

In an e-mail, Fortes pointed to a federal court case that concluded just last week, Salazar v. City of Maywood, in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that impounding a car driven by an unlicensed driver for 30 days "is warranted to protect Californians from the harm caused by unlicensed drivers." But Quinn said that the court decided not to formally publish that opinion and "put it in the law books as public opinion. I can't use it in a court of law."

Easy money?

In Mountain View, vehicle impound fees for unlicensed driving can add up to over $1,500, Fortes said, including tow yard fees and a $150 fee from the police department.

Some have accused cities and tow yards of making money on the backs of immigrants with the practice. Many don't even pick up their cars because the owner simply can't afford it or the car is worth less than the fees. After 30 days, tow companies can auction the car off to pay for the expense of storing and towing the car.

It might sound like easy money, but it's not, Fortes said, adding that it would be harder to pay for diesel fuel, rent and healthcare for his 24/7 workforce under the new practice.

Fortes said he brings in about three cars a month that were driven by unlicensed drivers. Towing duty is shared by a half dozen tow agencies that Mountain View police rotate through, he said. Towing companies also pick up abandoned cars at the request of police, and it sometimes costs tow companies to dispose of them.

Fortes said he hadn't felt any decline in business from the new practice yet. According to news reports, other tow companies have had to lay off drivers after police stopped automatically having cars towed.

Misdemeanor or infraction?

Boyarsky said police departments county-wide are being asked to stop issuing misdemeanor citations to those caught driving without a license — in cases in which no other crime is being committed. Boyarsky said only 2,700 of the 17,000 unlicensed driving cases in 2009 involved a person committing other serious crimes.

If it weren't a misdemeanor, prosecutors and public defenders would no longer be tied up with thousands of relatively minor cases in traffic court, saving money, Boyarsky said. And it is already typical practice to turn a misdemeanor for unlicensed driving into an infraction in court when no other crime has occurred, Boyarsky said. The difference is that it would be done "on the front end."

Wylie said Mountain View police are also studying that recommendation.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at


Like this comment
Posted by Absurd
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 18, 2011 at 6:50 pm

"Police will now have the option to have a licensed driver quickly pick the car up, or to allow unlicensed drivers to leave the car behind."

And the next day the same unlicensed driver (READ - driver who has not passed a test of basic driving skills and traffic laws) will be back behind the wheel of the same vehicle with the potential to cause an accident while most likely uninsured--and that's why we legals are already paying for uninsured motorists insurance.

This does not serve the interests of the legal citizens of Mountain View. And be rest assured that if a soccer mom is ever pulled over a ticket will be issued for whatever revenue-raising excuse the Police can find from the people with money driving legally with a license.

Like this comment
Posted by MTBDude
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2011 at 12:16 am

@ absurd
you don't have to have a driver license to live in MV.
Legal citizen ???? are you nuts?
There are plenty of legal citizens that drive without a license.
There are plenty of soccer moms who drive without a license. I have seen them first hand from supervising a weekend work furlough program.
Save your racism and bigotry along with your shoddy arguments for tea bagger conventions

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 19, 2011 at 7:37 am


Legal citizens too should have their cars impounded if they are driving without a license. That's the law, just like having insurance and making sure your car is properly registered and smogged. BTW, forgetting your license at home is not the same as never even having applied for a license. It's people like you that don't obey the law that have everyone else carrying your weight and irresponsibility. This has nothing to do with racism or bigotry, but rather people thumbing their nose at the laws or our society. Buses and trains exist and are subsidized by taxpayers for people that don't have licenses as well. And then there is always the option of a bicycle or walking.

Like this comment
Posted by Many Questions
a resident of Castro City
on Feb 19, 2011 at 10:34 am

It's interesting how the city sneaks this through without seeking public comment. Who's political agenda is at play here anyway? What brought this about? What was the reason behind this?

Like this comment
Posted by traveling, with lic.
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 19, 2011 at 2:42 pm

That's smart, they have jobs? Maybe I'm wrong, immigrants can't get a license because they are not legal in the US, how are they paying taxes? So now that's 3 laws and counting, is that were the "mostly law abiding" comes in? Wow, what a system its a know wonder the city has no money. My two year old can figure that one out.

Like this comment
Posted by ian
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Feb 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm

"Boyarsky said only 2,700 of the 17,000 unlicensed driving cases in 2009 involved a person committing other serious crimes." Sixteen percent still seems like a pretty high figure to justify impounding cars. Maybe some of these drivers are on their way to commit other serious crimes. How many of these cars are also unregistered or with stolen tags, uninsured, or not smogged? How many of these drivers actually really know how to drive and know the rules of the road to make it safe for other drivers? Why are they being pulled over to begin with? What am I missing here? It seems like a pretty slippery slope.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm

This policy stinks. Note the selective enforcement being mentioned.

Like this comment
Posted by legaldriver
a resident of The Crossings
on Feb 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Two weeks ago the 9th circuit court of appeals ruled that impounding a car for 30 days is constitutional. This is so upsetting to me as I am legally driving my infant through this city everyday. If I get hit by an unlicensed driver, what recourse do I have? None! Statistics obviously are not correct in this article, as other cities police departments have quoted much higher crime and accident rates. Please contact city counsel and the city attorney to put a stop to this practice! Everyone driving should have a valid license! If you dont, then take a bus, walk, ride a bike...there are many options.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm

They're going to give the illegals a free pass and hit citizens with fines. Maybe we should all just stop carrying identification. "I'm undocumented, Officer."

Like this comment
Posted by Ann
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Feb 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Sorry, drive without a license, lose your car.

Drive an unlicensed car, lose your car.

Drice without insurance, lose your car.

I've been hit or had my car hit by unlicensed people and it is me and after I pay my deductible, then my insurance that pays for people who don't follow OUR rules.

Frankly, I have NO simpathy for any unlicensed driver. Driving is a priviledge not a right.

Shouldn't our collective rights to safe streets be greater than that of lawbreakers?

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Whisman Station
on Feb 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Naughty, Naughty. Moving the comments to another thread without links. Very bad form, Voice. On our troll site, we do this all the time. EVERYONE gets to see ALL the posts on a topic.

So here is my last comment and a rebuttal:

osted by the_punnisher, a resident of the Whisman Station neighborhood, on Feb 22, 2011 at 7:52 pm
the_punnisher is a member (registered user) of Mountain View Online

Sorry, but the facts I described was how things were. Furthermore, many of my only contrary ( but proven with facts ) positions get removed.

As one of the admins of a fairly well known troll site, I have an idea what happened; we have to do it all the time for " the big four " because it is based in the US..

This brings up another hot-button issue: the " Town Square " problem.

As long as your staff deletes ( often without adding a WHY the post disappeared ) positions based on facts, are you truly offering a " Town Square " are are you becoming the equivalent of a " house organ " for the MVPD and people of their ilk. Say, the El Camino Hospital execs and the unions...

That is the elephant in the bathtub here at the " Voice ".


Back on topic:

Look at the big picture and ask:

Who pays the bills?

The licensed, insured and registered driver...

or the unlicensed, uninsured, unregistered driver?

This same question is being as in another fashion on a State and Federal level:


The bill is coming due and our credit cards are maxed out at ALL levels of Government.

The setup I described earlier worked pretty much as stated. I was there, I saw it happen. That is fact.

Much like my other comments that have been deleted. ECH, Santa Clara Social Services, Rota-Care. I was there. I REPORTED what I saw. The comments disappeared. OFTEN.

On the tow issue: BTDTGTTS. I " gambled " and lost moving a collector car. I didn't WHINE, I paid the FINE...

Mountain View needs the REVENUE, so what is the problem with enforcing ALL the laws??

Or are " The View ", MVPD and the " City Fathers " trying to make a POLITICAL STATEMENT???

I suspect the latter, based on the censorship of some of my comments.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.


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