By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group East Bay
Illegal immigrants and anyone else driving without a license will no longer have their cars impounded for 30 days when stopped for minor violations, thanks to a new Berkeley police policy.
Police Chief Michael Meehan agreed to the change last month and is now training officers on the new policy, he said.
In a memo announcing the change to city staff, City Manager Phil Kamlarz said, "This policy will prevent those who simply cannot get a driver's license, in many cases due to their immigration status, from having their vehicles impounded ..."
Meehan said the policy applies equally to all drivers, not just to those living here illegally. Those who are caught driving without a license still will get a ticket and have their car towed. They will not, however, lose their transportation for a month and have to pay a tow yard upward of $2,500 for storage fees.
That's a big plus for people who need to drive to work or get their kids to school, including those living here illegally, said a member of the Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, a group which was one of the driving forces behind getting the policy changed.
The group lobbied the city for two years, said Mario Ibarra, a member of the congregations.
"The first thing we had in mind is that there are a lot of people who need to drive to work, take their children to the hospital or to school," said Ibarra. "Those people should not be afraid to drive without a license."
But Berkeley Police Spokeswoman Mary Kusmiss reiterated it is still illegal to drive unlicensed.
"Unlicensed drivers are not getting a free pass in the city of Berkeley," Kusmiss said. "Those drivers who are the subject of a traffic stop who are found to be unlicensed will still receive a citation and in many cases their car will be towed."
Once the car is towed, only a licensed driver will be allowed to claim it from the impound yard.
Meehan said the policy will benefit anyone who "never got a license for whatever reason" and is designed to "balance safety and a reasonable level of law enforcement."
"If someone comes to California from another state, country, or wherever and does not get a new license, we feel that a citation and having their car towed is sufficient punishment without having to lose their car to a towing company for a month," Meehan said.
In addition to changing the policy, Ibarra said Meehan has pledged to train his officers and employees to be more sensitive to the needs of illegal immigrants who need to drive but technically cannot.
"We've had people caught in this situation where their car is impounded and they went to the police department to see what they could do and they were told it's not a police problem, it's a DMV problem and the DMV said it's not their problem it's a police problem," Ibarra said.
An Orinda group called Alliance for a Sustainable USA said the new policy is a bad idea.
"This kind of policy indirectly encourages illegal immigration which does have an impact on our labor markets and our government budges," said Executive Director Yeh Ling-Ling who was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in 1980.
"We urge not just the Berkeley police but all law enforcement agents across the U.S. to support measures that will help reduce illegal immigration."
Michael McBride, executive director of the congregations group, said the failure of the federal government to address immigration reform has cities like Berkeley doing it themselves.
"The lack of reform on the national level has required communities to have a conversation about how they want to live and how they can provide a quality of life for their constituents," McBride said. "We place a high value on everyone being here." Meehan said he agreed to the change after reviewing a similar policy in San Francisco and after hearing from City Council members.
"I looked at the policy in San Francisco and they just felt people were being treated unduly harshly for minor traffic offenses, and I couldn't disagree," Meehan said.
"If someone has never been arrested, but got stopped and lost their car for a month I felt that was harsh and did not make our city any safer."