City Alarmed by Police Impounding Cars of Undocumented Immigrants

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Saturday February 21, 2009 - 05:14:00 PM

Community organizers met with Berkeley city officials on Thursday to discuss concerns about the Berkeley police seizing cars of undocumented immigrants, which they said had generated fear among some Latino families.  

Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates, said that although the mayor was aware of the issue and sympathized with the immigrants, there was little that could be done since state law authorized the police to tow and impound vehicles for 30 days when driven by drivers who were unlicensed, or who had suspended or revoked licenses. 

“The mayor has been continuously opposed to the state law which says that immigration status is required to get a driver’s license,” she said. “But we don’t know what local law you could pass that would supersede the state law, except for someone actually changing the state law.” 

At Thursday’s meeting, Belen Pulido, lead organizer for the Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, asked Jesse Arreguin, Berkeley’s first Latino councilmember, to help the undocumented immigrants whose cars were being seized by Berkeley police at DUI checkpoints or traffic stops. 

“They are really scared because they feel their cars might be taken away when they are picking up their kids from school or coming home from work,” Pulido said. “And there’s no way they can get a license. So what should they do? Give up driving?” Calls for comment to the Berkeley Police Department were not returned Friday. 

“People are obviously upset,” Arreguin said, adding that he couldn’t understand how the police could do this in Berkeley, a city of refuge for illegal immigrants. “This is a big issue and not in the best interest of the city. It’s been going on for a long time and the city has not been doing anything about it. It raises important legal questions and whether we are discriminating against one group of people.” 

Mark Silverman, an attorney for the Immigration Legal Research Center in San Francisco, said that the police had been towing cars of undocumented immigrants for a long time in Berkeley, but the issue had become a bigger problem in other cities last year where authorities prevented drivers from taking back their seized cars for over a period of 30 days. 

Silverman said that although state law allowed the police to tow a car when the driver did not possess a license, it was unconstitutional and went against the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. 

“We want people to unite and organize and get the City of Berkeley to change their policy,” he said. 

Silverman, who is working with immigrant groups in seven counties in California who are trying to end the police practice of impounding cars based on the sole reason that the driver is not licensed, said that the Fourth Amendment protects people from “unreasonable seizures.” 

“If the car is causing a danger to public safety then the police can remove and seize the car,” he said. “But it’s unconstitutional to take someone’s property away solely because he doesn’t have a license—it’s not enough reason to justify a seizure. If the driver takes this issue to the court, I am not sure he would win, but I am certain that if the Berkeley Police Department and the City of Berkeley continues to tow cars, they face a big chance of incurring significant financial liability.” 

Pulido said that she had come across seven cases last year and two so far this year in which undocumented Latino immigrants had called her for help on getting their impounded cars released. 

“People will call me when the police take away their cars but I can only help so many,” she said, adding that four months ago she had helped a Latino woman to get her car back after paying $200 to the impoundment center. “And that was only for a day. This other man gave up on his car because he had to pay the impoundment center a four-day fee and the car itself was worth less than $2,000. A lot of people never get their cars back because they can’t afford the fees. Something needs to be done to make the process easier for them.” 

BOCA played a prominent role in supporting the Latino community last May when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained a Berkeley couple who were unable to show the officers their licenses while driving to the BART station, according to Silverman, and subsequently failed to provide documentation to prove their legal immigration status. 

ICE called the detainment routine targeted enforcement action at that time. 

Lori Haley, a spokesperson for ICE, said on Friday she was not aware of local authorities impounding cars belonging to undocumented immigrants in Berkeley. 

Sinai said that the Berkeley City Council had recently received a report from the Berkeley Police Department in response to their concerns about vehicles of undocumented immigrants being towed at DUI checkpoints. 

“There was some concern from city officials because one of the places where you ask for a driver’s license is at a checkpoint,” she said.  

In the report, Doug Hambleton, Berkeley chief of police, said “the department does not seek out undocumented immigrants for enforcement of DUI offenses or any other violation of law.”