Legislation is in the works in Sacramento that could ease the pain of impoverished drivers who see their vehicles impounded because they're driving with a suspended license.
The issue has resonance in Menlo Park. The police department came under particular scrutiny in a June 17 story, "Driving with suspended license top crime in Menlo Park, many lose cars," by the Peninsula Press, a project of the Stanford Journalism Program. The story received more attention Aug. 5 when KQED broadcast a news segment on it.
In the story, reporter Farida Jhabvala Romero described the plight of drivers from the Belle Haven neighborhood, mostly Latino and African American, who struggle to maintain their livelihoods after being cited and having their vehicles impounded and towed away.
A change in city policy is not out of the question, City Manager Alex McIntyre said, depending on what his research turns up.
In the story, Menlo Park Police Cmdr. Dave Bertini says that his department concentrated traffic enforcement patrols in Belle Haven in response to residents' complaints in 2013 about bad drivers. As a result, most of Menlo Park's citations for suspended licenses in recent years have occurred in Belle Haven.
Suspended licenses are often a consequence of not having the money to pay a traffic ticket and the late fees that accompany not paying it. A state law enacted in 1995 gave police officers the authority to impound the vehicles of people driving with suspended licenses, Cmdr. Bertini said, and when the vehicle is impounded, it sits in storage at a cost of $60 to $80 a day, adding to the driver's woes.
A judge might help people in these circumstances, but an appearance in court often requires that fines and fees be paid first, the story says.
"To me," state Sen. Jerry Hill told the Almanac, "the issue is making sure that policies do not criminalize poverty." Senate Bill 405, by Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks, is moving through the Legislature. SB 405 would eliminate the requirement that fines be paid before seeing a judge, and would allow certain types of suspensions to be lifted if the person has established a payment plan.
This is the 10th bill on impounded-vehicle law since 2000, and most have died in committee, according to information provided by Sen. Hill's office.
Safety on the road is the issue, Sen. Hill said. An analysis of Assembly Bill 335, which died in 2014, acknowledges the pain to low-income families of having a vehicle impounded, but adds that drivers with suspended licenses "pose an elevated risk to all other road users" and that "impoundments are an effective public safety tool."
Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the DMV concludes that drivers with suspended licenses are at least three times more likely to cause a fatal accident than the average licensed driver, and that impounding their vehicles results in substantial reductions in traffic violations and crashes, the analysis says.
In an analysis of SB 405, Sen. Hertzberg says that "a staggering number of Californians" have no access to courts after a traffic citation. "As a result of unclear policy and high fees, drivers do not have the opportunity to see a judge and essentially lose their right to due process," he says, adding that his bill would allow 4.2 million Californians to have their licenses reinstated.
City Manager McIntyre said he was going to look into Menlo Park's $300 vehicle-release fee to determine whether it was "out of whack" and whether or not that fee was contributing to the problem. According to the Peninsula Press story, San Diego's fee is $54 and Sacramento's is $180.
Cmdr. Bertini reiterated what he said in the Peninsula Press story: that when he was patrolling the streets of Pacifica, he would try to get drivers to take the ticketing process seriously. But, he added, people run afoul of the process for all sorts of reasons.
"If people think it's unfair, then they need to talk with their legislators," he said. "We don't make the laws, we enforce them. They know they are rolling the dice every time they drive."