Many low-income drivers cannot afford to recover their vehicles after they're towed. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/Peninsula Press)
Rene Macedo Nolasco, a night shift worker, was driving home late at night on May 2 from his job at the Tesla Motors plant in Fremont when he noticed flashing lights in his rearview mirror. Twenty minutes later, a Menlo Park police officer had cited him for driving with a revoked license, a misdemeanor. His blue 2006 Audi, which he had purchased a few days before for $6,000, was towed to an impound lot.
Macedo Nolasco could have reclaimed his car in 30 days — if he'd had the money to cover the $60 to $80 daily tow yard storage charges, plus other fees.
“I’m not going to get it out from the impound lot because it’s too much money,” said Macedo Nolasco, 27, a father of two. The minimum amount he would have had to pay is $2,300, more than a third of the Audi’s value.
Menlo Park police citations and vehicle impounds for driving with a suspended license nearly tripled from 2008 to 2014, making this misdemeanor the top crime in the city, according to a Peninsula Press analysis of data from the Police Department. Many impounded cars are never recovered by owners, according to interviews with drivers and supervisors at towing companies.
The majority of citations and impounds occurred on the east side of the city, where most of the regional commuter traffic zooms through. But police data also show that seven out of 10 drivers cited for a suspended license over a four-month time period were Latino or African-American.
Police say they are not targeting minorities. They attribute the steady rise in incidents to more policing aimed at responding to residents worried about safety, and point to a reduction in violent crime and traffic accidents last year as proof that the strategy is working. Drivers who have been cited say the rules and police attention make their lives harder and are unfairly resulting in stops and citations against Latinos and African-Americans.
Macedo Nolasco’s troubles began over seven years ago, when he gambled on driving with an expired registration and lost. Then he got other traffic citations that he couldn’t afford to pay, so his license was suspended. He could have taken the bus to work, but the trip takes over an hour, so he gambled again and kept driving — until that stop in May.
Now he usually takes the bus and relies on his mom to pick him up at 4 a.m. when his shift ends. She recently loaned him her van so that he could make the 17-mile trip to work, praying that he wouldn’t be stopped and get her car towed as well.
“It’s very stressful. It affects the whole family,” said his mother, Olga Nolasco, a house cleaner who just last year also saw her daughter Janet’s car get impounded because of a revoked license. “It’s not fair that they take their cars away. How are they going to get to work?”
Of the suspended license citations in Menlo Park, 71 percent resulted in police officers impounding the driver’s vehicle for the statutory 30-day period, according to police data from more than seven years, from 2008 to April 2015.
Many drivers lose their cars permanently
The impound costs in Menlo Park and in other Bay Area cities, such as San Francisco and San Jose, are significantly higher than in Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego, and sometimes add up to more than the car is worth, according to interviews and research into impound policies.
Fewer than half of the cars impounded for 30 days are picked up by owners and the numbers of owners retrieving their vehicles are significantly down from 2008, according to managers at three towing companies working with Menlo Park.
“Most of the cars that we tow for Menlo Park police get left and never get picked up,” said Jeff from Ed’s Cradle and Tow in Mountain View, who declined to give his last name.
Towers statewide are seeing a big drop in the number of owners retrieving their cars after a 30-day impound, said Quinn Piening, chairman of the California Tow Truck Association Greater Bay Area Chapter. Piening believes drivers with serial suspended license citations in particular opt out of paying for impound costs and surrender their cars.
“They go and buy another cheap vehicle and just drive it,” Piening said.
The vehicles left in the impound lots are sold by towing companies at auctions or to a junkyard. The lien sale proceeds go to cover the amount these companies charge for towing and daily storage. If the sale isn’t enough to cover that cost, the registered owners may lose their vehicle and still be on the hook for the rest of the tab.
Towing companies have a tough time recovering any remaining debt after a lien sale, said Piening, and as a result, his company — Central Towing & Transport — and others he knows of are not profiting as much as they used to from these tows six years ago. Contributing to lower profits is a drop in the total number of tows ordered by police for other violations in the five cities his company works with, he added.
“Tow companies are not getting rich in this business by any stretch of doing law enforcement work,” Piening said. “When we were towing 30-day impounds and the vehicles were valued at $5,000, that was one thing. But today we are towing vehicles that are valued under $1,000 and you can’t find people to buy them.”
Still, others believe that state law on impounds benefits tow yards at the expense of the public.
“Is it a good set of laws? Does it make sense from a public policy standpoint? Is it abused by people running tow yards?” asked Donald W. Cook, a Los Angeles-based attorney who is challenging the 30-day impound policy for unlicensed drivers in Los Angeles, Santa Rosa and other California cities. “The only answer is, of course, it’s abused.”
Cook said he is seeking a court order to make California release statewide records for vehicles impounded for 30 days, which are included in the Department of Justice Stolen Vehicle System database. Cook likens these types of impounds to “stealing people’s cars.”
“This 30-day impound statute is used to victimize the people who are most vulnerable to it. Basically the poor, a large segment of which are illegals,” added Cook, referring to undocumented drivers. “Many of them can’t afford it. They lose their vehicle and get nothing for it.”
The California Department of Motor Vehicles does not track relevant towing data, such as the reason cars end up at lien sale auctions, the local agency that ordered the impound in the first place or the ethnicity of drivers — making it difficult to estimate the ethnic makeup of license suspensions. The City of Menlo Park declined to disclose how many of those vehicles were retrieved by owners or more information about the drivers, citing privacy concerns.
But publicly available police logs from the last two months suggest these citations and impounds disproportionately impact minorities driving in Menlo Park: 68 percent were Latino, while 16 percent were African-American.
Menlo Park police Cmdr. Dave Bertini believes the issue has nothing to do with race, but has everything to do with income.
“If anybody were to suggest that this is going on for racial reasons, I think that’s asinine and bordering on slanderous,” said Bertini, who has been with the department since 2011.
Bertini said low-income drivers often come to the attention of officers because of mechanical failures of their cars, such as a broken tail light or excessive exhaust. They are also more likely than affluent drivers to have the DMV suspend their license, when they fail to appear in court or don’t pay traffic tickets.
In California, the original amounts of traffic tickets can double or triple because of various added-on fees, penalties and other mandatory payments.
A ticket with a $100 base fine, such as failure to carry proof of auto insurance, costs $490 after fees and assessments. The price jumps to $730, plus other court fees, if the driver misses the initial deadline to pay the ticket, according to the Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules by the Judicial Council of California.
Many low-income drivers are unable to pay such fines. A recent survey by the Federal Reserve found that the majority of Americans with incomes of less than $40,000 a year would struggle to pay an emergency expense of $400.
In California, uncollected court-ordered debt for traffic and criminal offenses adds up to an estimated $10.2 billion, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
When the California courts notify the DMV of two or more failures to pay or appear in court violations, the DMV suspends the driver’s license.
Low-income and minority drivers hit the hardest
Statewide, over 4 million people have their driver’s licenses suspended because they can’t afford to pay a traffic ticket or miss a court deadline, according to a recent report by the East Bay Community Law Center, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and other groups. This number excludes license suspensions because of driving under the influence.
The increasing cost of traffic tickets and the closing of court doors to drivers who miss a deadline are contributing to an explosion in the number of drivers whose licenses are revoked, according to the report. Some courts may have required full payment of a ticket before scheduling a court date, said Teresa Ruano, spokeswoman for the Judicial Council of California, which sets policy for the statewide court system.
To address rising concerns about access to justice, the council issued a new rule in June that allows drivers to fight a ticket in court without first having to deposit the full amount of the ticket. This policy change, which took effect immediately, does not apply to drivers who already missed a court deadline to appear or pay.
Gov. Jerry Brown has characterized the system that leads to drivers losing their licenses because they can’t pay fines or fail to appear in court as a “hellhole of desperation.” The Legislature approved in June a traffic amnesty program proposed by Brown that would help some drivers regain their licenses.
The issue is urgent as police citations and vehicle impounds for suspended licenses are hitting record numbers throughout the state, said Elisa Della-Piana, co-author of the report “Not Just a Ferguson Problem, How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.” After the report was published in April, Della-Piana’s organization was contacted by people reporting more impounds in various cities.
“It happens disproportionately to people of color,” said Della-Piana, who is director of programs at the East Bay Community Law Center. She cited San Diego Police Department statistics showing that African-American and Latino drivers were stopped and searched at a higher rate than white drivers in 2014. “There’s clearly racial bias in traffic stops,” she said.
Getting a driver’s license suspended and the potential loss of a vehicle because of an impound hurts the livelihood of individuals, forcing some families into welfare, Della-Piana said.
“They can’t keep a job because the job requires them to drive,” Della-Piana said. “We see person after person who has an active job offer that they can’t take because they don’t have a driver’s license just because they couldn’t afford to pay a traffic ticket.”
Cycle of debt
Janet Campos, the sister of driver Rene Macedo Nolasco, missed her court date for an unpaid speeding ticket and had her license suspended. Last year, a Menlo Park police officer stopped her for failing to use a turn signal, and then cited her for driving while on a revoked license. He impounded her vehicle.
“Yeah, I was breaking the law. But it was just driving home,” said Campos, an unemployed mother of two boys. “I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t on drugs. And to basically get my whole life turned around in one split second. … I mean, don’t make the law so hard.”
Campos and her husband, a construction worker, cobbled the thousands of dollars needed to retrieve their impounded car. But the couple can’t afford to pay additional fees to get her license reinstated, which she says ballooned to $2,100.
As she can’t legally drive, her options for finding employment are limited to minimum-wage jobs at a Walgreens and Safeway that are walking distance from her Hayward home. That in turn, dampens her prospects for earning enough money to pay for her driver’s license fines, she said.
“It’s just completely overwhelming,” said Campos, adding that she has struggled with depression after losing her license.
Alcohol-related accidents spur seizures and impound law
Prior to 1995, police officers lacked the authority to seize and impound the vehicles of motorists driving with a suspended license. Public furor over alcohol-related accidents and deaths prompted the California Legislature to approve a bill that would change that. The ensuing Vehicle Code section 14602.6 authorizes officers to seize and impound for 30 days the vehicles of drivers whose licenses were revoked because of DUIs and other violations, including failure to appear in court and pay traffic fines.
But statewide and local figures show that the majority of suspensions and citations are not due to DUIs.
In California, less than a third of the 439,750 court-ordered suspensions in 2014 were related to DUIs, according to the DMV. In Menlo Park, DUI offenses are related to just 15 percent of the suspended license citations since 2008.
Bertini, the Menlo Park police commander, recognizes that the rules for license suspensions and impounds have become “a vicious cycle” for drivers without the resources to pay fines.
Bertini, a former traffic officer, has seen firsthand the disproportionate impact citations can have on low-income drivers. His tickets came with a stern warning.
“Don’t ignore this. If you ignore this, bad things will happen because they’ll suspend your license, you’ll get a warrant, then you’ll be caught driving on a suspended license, then you’ll get arrested and then they’ll take your car,” Bertini recalled.
Bertini attributes the growing rise in incidents in Menlo Park to a renewed focus on public safety and traffic enforcement. After Facebook moved to the Belle Haven neighborhood on the east side of Menlo Park in 2011, the city held a series of meetings with Belle Haven residents concerned about gang shootings in the area and “people driving crazy,” Bertini said.
Between 2011 and 2013, all of Menlo Park’s 44 shootings — including three murders — were in Belle Haven or within a mile radius. But no violent gun incidents have occurred there or elsewhere in the city since January 2014.
These changes are developing as Belle Haven, where most Latino and African-American residents live, is undergoing swift gentrification. As elsewhere in the region, housing costs continue to rise and low-income residents move out.
City of drive-through traffic
Menlo Park realized they had a serious problem with traffic accidents a few years back. The city ranked among the top 10 in the state for fatal and injury collisions when compared with cities of similar size in 2012, the most recent figures by the California Office of Traffic Safety show.
That prompted the Menlo Park Police Department to reassign two officers to a previously defunct traffic unit in 2013, and to instruct patrol officers to do traffic enforcement with special focus on congested avenues on the east, as well as the less busy streets of Belle Haven, said Bertini.
As a result, most of the 1,819 citations during the last seven years took place in this part of the city. Few occurred in the affluent neighborhoods on the west side of Menlo Park.
In 2014, the number of traffic collisions dropped 20 percent from the year before, Bertini said.
“Because we saturated that area with police officers, they are going to make more stops,” Bertini said. “That is due to the fact that residents have been fed up and they want their community to be safe.”
Willert Waller, who grew up in Belle Haven, has noticed the heightened police presence.
“It’s like every other day coming home from work, I see somebody pulled over, no matter what time of the day,” said Waller, 48, adding that most of the people he sees police stop are Latino and African-American.
On April 20, Waller was stopped because his registration tags had just expired. His license had been revoked years back because of an unpaid ticket for driving without insurance and, as he recalls, unpaid child support.
“I knew I shouldn’t have been driving with a suspended license, but I have to work,” said Waller, who said he became current on his child support payments before the incident. “This was just a real big inconvenience to have that vehicle towed like that.”
Waller borrowed money from his mother, who recently retired, to get his driver’s license reinstated after paying $2,612 in late fines to the court. Owners who pay the entirety of their fines may regain their licenses and, in turn, get their cars out of the impound lot before 30 days, avoiding potentially hundreds of dollars in storage fees.
Waller’s car, a 2007 Cadillac, was in the tow lot for just 16 days. Still, he paid $1,280 in towing and storage fees to retrieve it.
“Who is making the profit out of low-income people?” he asked.
Towing and storage prices are a statewide patchwork
Menlo Park fees are comparable to those of other Bay Area cities but not to other areas of California. If Waller had been cited in Los Angeles he would have paid in towing and storage fees $790 for the same period of time — about 40 percent less than what he paid after being towed in Menlo Park.
The DMV says that rates are “generally established by an agreement between the law enforcement agency requesting the tow and the towing company.” That results in a patchy map of towing and vehicle storage fees, as rates vary dramatically throughout the state.
“If they are benefiting the tow yards with the statute that requires a 30-day impound, why isn’t the state regulating the exorbitant rates? Why aren’t they uniform throughout the state?” asked Cynthia Anderson-Barker, a civil rights lawyer who started a legal clinic to halt police impounds of vehicles owned by immigrant drivers in the city of Maywood, near Los Angeles.
In Menlo Park, the initial tow fee ranges from $200 to $240, while daily storage costs go from $60 to $80 depending on the company that does the tow, said Sgt. Matthew Ortega.
In addition, drivers with a suspended license citation, considered a misdemeanor that generally results in a “cite and release” arrest, must pay an additional $300 vehicle release fee to Menlo Park. That city fee also varies greatly throughout California. San Diego’s fee is $54, while Sacramento’s is $180, for example.
Ortega said that Menlo Park’s towing and storage prices are similar to the local California Highway Patrol fees. These range from $200 to $235 for the towing service, and $70 to $75 for daily storage, according to records from the Redwood City CHP Area Office.
The CHP does not keep a readily available list of the fees charged by the towing companies it employs throughout the state, but local commanders in each of the 103 offices make sure the fees are “reasonable for the area,” said Officer Daniel Hill from the California Highway Patrol, Golden Gate Division.
“We pick the average of those rates, and the outliers are cast off,” Hill said. The CHP does not charge an administrative fee to release impounded vehicles.
Menlo Park contracts with 12 towing companies that pay the city $100 for each 30-day tow the police orders. To sell a vehicle, these companies must first pay for a lien sale process fee of $70 or more, and auction sale costs.
“We are breaking even, maybe losing a little with the 30-day holds,” said Jamie from Redwood Auto, who declined to give his last name. “More than 50 percent of those cars go to the junkyard. These cars are in such bad shape … that’s usually what gets them pulled over.”
The junkyard pays about $200 per car, said Jamie.
One of the vehicles that will be auctioned off or sold to a junkyard is a minivan owned by a mother of five who earns about $1,600 a month working at a dry cleaners. Maria, who asked that her last name not be used because of her immigration status, paid $2,000 for her 2013 Ford Windstar two years ago. Now, she can’t afford to get it back from the impound lot, she said.
On April 22, while Maria drove with her 11-year old son near their home in Belle Haven, Menlo Park police pulled her over for an expired vehicle registration and then cited her for driving with a suspended license, Maria said.
“I know that I made a mistake,” said Maria in Spanish. “But I don’t think it’s fair that they took my van away.”
She has never held a California driver’s license, but her privilege to drive was still revoked if she hadn’t paid for previous traffic tickets, said Bertini. She could retrieve her vehicle from the tow yard if someone else who does have a valid California driver’s license acts as her agent, said Hill, the spokesman for the CHP.
Before 2015, Maria wouldn’t have been eligible for a California driver’s license. But now the state will issue licenses to unauthorized immigrants. Maria has been paying installments on her traffic fines for months. She still owes $350 but had hoped to pay the final amount so that she can get a license.
But since her vehicle was towed and she owes more money, that may never happen, she said.
Governor and Legislature push for changes
Last June, the Legislature approved the governor's plan for traffic debt amnesty program. It will allow drivers to get their license reinstated if they sign up to pay half of the amount they owe in fines for minor traffic infractions they received before 2013. The program could take effect as soon as Oct. 1, said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance.
“It makes sense from a fiscal standpoint and a public policy standpoint,” Palmer said. “It is an opportunity for individuals to get their licenses back and that may be the one thing that gets them to either a paying job or a better-paying job.”