San Francisco police on Sunday will begin a new policy on impounding the vehicles of unlicensed drivers, a practice some community members had complained unfairly targeted undocumented immigrants.
In a shift from the current policy whereby the vehicles of unlicensed drivers pulled over in traffic stops would be immediately towed, police will now give those drivers 20 minutes for a licensed and insured person to arrive and drive off the vehicle.
A second offense within six months would result in an immediate 30-day impound of the vehicle.
At a Board of Supervisors hearing earlier this year, members of the immigrant community complained some were being pulled over by police without cause, and worried about possible racial motivations for traffic stops, an accusation police denied. Vehicle impounds are also costly to members of the community struggling to maintain low-paying jobs, community members said.
Mayor Gavin Newsom said today police Chief George Gascon “worked hard on this policy” and felt it was “the right thing to do.”
The change was addressing “what was perceived as racial profiling,” Newsom said.
Newsom–who is under fire from San Francisco’s immigrant community for his plans to reject a proposal that would modify the city’s sanctuary ordinance on reporting undocumented youth accused of felony crimes — said the vehicle policy is intended to balance the immigrant community’s concerns with those of police, and to “build trust in the community.”
Newsom rejected the idea that the new policy would allow undocumented immigrants to flout the law.
“Changing the policy–for 20 minutes–to me, is not skirting that,” he said. He said the issue was being blown out of proportion.
“To the extent that the 20-minute grace period becomes a concern, we’ll fix it–period,” Newsom said.
The new policy was initiated under the administration of prior police Chief Heather Fong, but will be implemented by Gascon.
Police today insisted the policy change was about public safety.
“This is not a policy about undocumented residents, it’s about unlicensed drivers, and it applies to everyone, regardless of immigration status,” said police spokesman Officer Boaz Mariles.
Mariles acknowledged the policy arose out of immigrant community concerns, including financial hardship–with citation and towing costs running into the hundreds of dollars.
“But we think this is definitely a way to ensure better, safer streets,” he said.
Mariles said some unlicensed drivers buy unsafe vehicles knowing they are likely to be impounded if they are stopped, and he speculated that might change if they know “there’s a way for me to get my car back.”
The 20-minute time limit will be subject to the police officer’s discretion. Mariles said he didn’t believe it would place an extra burden on officers.
“And we think it’s progressive, we think it’s forward thinking, and we think other (police) departments will take notice,” Mariles said.