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Towed Away

Cops Accused of Targeting Undocumented Workers


Thursday, August 12, 2010

A retired corporate executive who used to run a Midwestern eyeglass empire has accused the Santa Barbara Police Department of illegally impounding the cars of undocumented workers, violating state law and the U.S. Constitution in the process. On Fiesta Friday, Russ Trenholme — former owner of eyeglass chain Vision World — released a study four years in the making that he said showed Santa Barbara police are “targeting” undocumented immigrants for car impounds. From the beginning of 2007 to July 2009, he said, Santa Barbara police impounded 2,911 vehicles belonging to people driving without a license and an additional 599 vehicles driven by people who’d had their licenses revoked or suspended. The vast majority of people driving without a license, said Trenholme, are undocumented immigrants because state law — since 1994 — has denied them the ability to obtain a driver’s license legally. In that time, Trenholme said, the number of unlicensed driving citations increased first by 51 percent and then by 81 percent. In fact, Trenholme said, this citation has become “the most common citation given by the Santa Barbara Police Department over the past two years, exceeding the total of all the various moving and equipment citations combined.”

Trenholme — who is working in conjunction with the social justice advocacy group PUEBLO — noted that Santa Barbara police impound all cars from drivers driving without a license and all drivers whose licenses have been revoked. Trenholme said police reports showed that 1.3 percent of all motorists stopped at DUI checkpoints were found to be driving without a license and less than a half-percent had had their licenses revoked. Such percentages, he said, provided a snapshot of how many motorists actually drove without a license at any given time. But when city police officers are dispatched on “directed” or “saturation” patrols targeting unsafe drivers — usually paid for with state or federal grants — Trenholme reported they stopped a much larger percentage of drivers operating without licenses than at checkpoints. On these patrols, Trenholme said, police records indicate the officers involved found that 5.6 percent (during directed patrols) and 18.5 percent (during saturation patrols) of the vehicles they stopped were operated by people without valid licenses.

“If there was this massive increase in bad driving, we would have seen it reflected in the number of other citations issued,” he said. In fact, he said, he found just the opposite.

The difference in these outcomes, Trenholme said, could only be accounted for by “targeting,” a term he acknowledged was less politically charged than “profiling,” a practice that the Santa Barbara Police Department has long denied doing. Trenholme said if the officers on patrol were stopping more people without licenses, there must have been problems with either the drivers’ conduct or their cars’ road-worthiness to legally justify such stops. If not, he said, the stops would have violated the constitutional requirement that police officers show probable cause. “If there was this massive increase in bad driving, we would have seen it reflected in the number of other citations issued,” he said. In fact, he said, he found just the opposite. Officers who gave out the most impound citations — and some reported impound rates as high as 48 percent — typically issued the fewest citations (for other causes) than the officers who issued the fewest impound citations. City Attorney Steve Wiley agreed that cops do have to show probable cause for pulling someone over; driving without a license is not a visible offense. But the fact that other citations don’t show up, he said, could be because cops often will let certain things slide while sticking the drivers with the most serious charge.

Police Chief Cam Sanchez said his department would issue a more complete response later, but added, “I’m not impressed with this report. We don’t target by ethnic origin or by national origin. We have no idea if a person is illegal or not, and we don’t care.” Sanchez said saturation and directed patrols — like checkpoints — are focused on areas of greatest traffic hazard. One was recently conducted on Milpas Street, he said, because there were lots of near-misses reported between cars and pedestrians, not because illegal workers might be in the neighborhood. Sanchez added that while the city’s policy is to impound, he’s personally seen officers work with the drivers to find a licensed friend — offering the officer’s cell phone in some situations — who might drive the car home.

“Santa Barbara is hardly the worst offender out there; they’ve got good people in the department. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” he said.

Trenholme suggested Santa Barbara cops may not be as motivated by concerns about immigration status as they are by financial considerations. Before someone can get their car released from the impound yard, he said they must first pay the tow yard fees — which after 30 days is about $1,500 — the price of the ticket, and an administrative fee of $150. Officers working these directed patrols are paid overtime to do so; with state and federal grants drying up, Trenholme suggested, the department could be relying more on the administrative fees to keep the programs financed. “Santa Barbara is hardly the worst offender out there; they’ve got good people in the department. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” he said.

Calling Trenholme’s report hard to follow, Wiley said Trenholme had, for years, been sending the city emails accusing it of racial profiling. The report, said Wiley, purports to prove what Trenholme has been saying all along. “If it turned out we were pulling people over without probable cause,” said Wiley, “I would be very surprised and disappointed. But I don’t believe it’s true.”

Trenholme moved to Santa Barbara in 2000 after selling off his business in 1998. He bought a house in Montecito and immersed himself in the community by enrolling in Spanish-language classes. At that point, he began hearing stories about police impounding the cars of immigrants who could not get licenses. “These are the people who are really supporting our economy working the jobs no one else wants,” he said. “If they’re bad drivers, fine, take away their cars. But being an immigrant here is tough enough as it is; we shouldn’t be making it even tougher.”