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Sebastopol's police department is now recognizing Mexican consular ID cards as valid identification, a move that could keep some illegal immigrants from landing in jail, where they would most likely be flagged by federal immigration officials.

Police officers in California have the authority to arrest drivers who cannot provide valid identification, and Sebastopol officials have strictly enforced that law, Police Chief Jeffrey Weaver said.

The city's new policy of accepting a consular ID card (known in Spanish as a matricula consular) will affect a "very small group of people," Weaver said. It would benefit primarily those drivers who are pulled over, do not have a driver's license and face no other legal issues.

The change is "really one specific offense — that's driving without a driving license," Weaver said Friday.

Sebastopol made the change in response to community members who were concerned that arrests were being made for offenses that typically would result in a citation, he said.

On a first offense of driving without a license, law enforcement officers in Sebastopol have three options — issue a citation and allow the driver to find a licensed driver to remove the vehicle; tow the car, but not require a 30-day impound; or lock the car, put it in a safe place and order the driver not to drive.

Weaver made it clear that anyone caught committing a "bookable offense" would be arrested and jailed regardless of identification.

What's more, he said the policy will not prevent vehicles from being towed and impounded for 30 days on a second offense of driving without a license.

"That's a different issue," he said.

Sonoma County immigrant rights advocates applauded the policy change.

"It establishes a positive interaction between the police and the community, not just the Latino community," said Omar Gallardo, president of the North Bay Organizing Project. The coalition includes the Committee for Immigrant Rights Sonoma County, the Living Wage Coalition and the Graton Day Labor Center.

For months, the group has been meeting with local law enforcement leaders asking them to consider consular cards as a valid form of identification. Gallardo said illegal immigrants who are sent to jail because they cannot produce valid ID often face deportation, effectively making local law enforcement officers an arm of the federal immigration service.

Under a federal immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities, the fingerprints of anyone booked into Sonoma County jail are electronically checked against both FBI and Department of Homeland Security databases. The system is effective at flagging possible illegal immigrants.

Weaver said that when consular cards were first issued in the 1990s, he called the Mexican Consulate to find out how much identity verification went into producing the cards. What he learned left him with a number of security concerns.

Responding to advocates' request to have another look at matricula cards, a team of local law enforcement leaders visited the Mexican Consulate office in San Francisco this summer to take a closer look at security issues.

"We had them walk us through the process," said Weaver. "It's essentially the same criteria that the Mexican government uses to issue a passport."

Weaver said Sebastopol's new policy is being considered by nearly every police department in Sonoma County, as well as the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, in an effort to achieve uniform enforcement across the region.

Sheriff Steve Freitas said Friday that the policy will be considered at the next meeting of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association in early October.

"My goal is to have, whenever possible, consistency in law enforcement services countywide," Freitas said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.