Tow-talitarianism

A new car-impound program hands too much power to the police

When asked several weeks ago, Cathy Johnson thought nothing of lending the keys of her car to a friend for a trip to the grocery store. Little did the 32-year-old know that her simple act of friendship would ensnare her in a statewide crackdown on unlicensed drivers and eventually lead the police to seize her car and arrest her for prostitution.

An extreme case to be sure, but Johnson's travails explain how the crackdown, which local officials have dubbed STOP (San Francisco Traffic Offender Program), has created a seemingly endless trap of fines, fees, and forfeiture of property -- a textbook case in the abuse of governmental power. In the seven months since STOP was launched, the police have impounded several thousand cars in San Francisco. An untold number have been auctioned off by the city after owners have failed to pay their fines.

STOP, and its cousins up and down the state, was born last year when Sacramento lawmakers, goaded by studies showing that unlicensed drivers cause the majority of drunk-driving and hit-and-run offenses, amended the California Vehicle Code to allow for the on-the-scene seizure of cars belonging to unlicensed operators.

When SFPD officers stopped Johnson's friend in July and learned he had no license, they used their new seizure powers. Even though Johnson had a license, she was still liable for the fines. In a matter of days the cost of recovery soared past $300, far outstripping her meager resources. Previous to the change in state law, police could only issue a citation for driving without a license.

Sources say Johnson (not her real name) has told them she went to Capp Street, a seedy hookers' scene, to raise the money to retrieve her car (and principal residence). Johnson pleaded "not guilty" to the prostitution charge at her arraignment, but she is currently negotiating a plea bargain with prosecutors.

Johnson's alleged decision to hook in order to pay off the fines and fees attached to STOP is indeed unique. But her desperation is not. The cost of retrieving a vehicle impounded under the new program -- STOP triggers six different levels of fines and fees -- is simply staggering.

First, the Department of Motor Vehicles demands fees to register a vehicle, a necessary precursor to getting a license. Sometimes, the municipal court extracts its pound of flesh, too, requiring that tickets be paid off before a license is issued. At this point, the cost can easily exceed $1,000.

Next, there's the tow fee and the daily storage fees. These two combined can easily exceed $500.

But that's not all. The police charge a $150 administrative fee to cover the cost of running the program. And if the district attorney decides to prosecute for misdemeanor vehicle code violations, the city can impose criminal penalties, which range from $300 to $2,700.

Deputy Public Defender Whitney Leigh, who's defending Johnson against the prostitution charge, says another client of his was forced last week to cough up a total of $5,000 to get his car back.

Though the success of the program depends on people with deep pockets and high-limit credit cards, not everyone has a cool thousand, or two or three, lying around. For those people, the effect of STOP is elementary: They lose their cars. Forever.

Under STOP, the city can auction off a vehicle to pay for storage fees after 30 days, according to Leigh. In some cases, he says, the city has used its discretion to auction a car off sooner -- which gets at a key flaw in the program: The punishment under STOP far outpaces the gravity of the crime. So much so that public outrage may become hard to manage once word of the new law becomes more widespread.

Moreover, as with too many laws, STOP has had an uneven impact across class and race lines. In short, poor people, especially minorities, bear the brunt of STOP. "All these people are really poor," says Deputy Public Defender Alison Bernstein, "and everyone in the system knows that."

Speaking anecdotically, public defenders say most STOP cases involve poor people who've failed to register their cars because they can't afford to pay off their tickets, or simply can't muster the DMV registration fee. Because enforcement of traffic laws is so rapacious in San Francisco -- the Department of Parking and Traffic uses parking citations as a taxing vehicle as much as a tool to encourage lawful parking -- the burden of traffic tickets here is particularly onerous.

STOP also contains an added bonus for cops: The expanded powers created by STOP allow officers to subvert civil rights in searching people and their vehicles.

When a car is impounded and towed, a police officer is allowed to search the driver and passengers and the car itself. Since STOP allows automatic tows, it naturally triggers warrantless searches where even probable cause is no longer necessary.

"Cops are using this to roust poor men of color in certain neighborhoods," Bernstein says.

Increasingly, she says, officers are using specious pretexts to stop minorities in the hopes that the driver will be unlicensed and subject to a search. Bernstein adds that she's seeing a sudden interest by police officers in stopping minorities who fail to use their turn signals, play rap music too loud, or fail to install the tiny light bulbs that illuminate their license plates.

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