The decision by a Santa Rosa Police officer not to impound the car of the unlicensed driver accused five days later in a fatal hit-and-run crash has reignited a debate that is playing out in community groups as well as in the state legislature.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said the death of 4-year-old Christopher "Buddy" Rowe is the responsibility of the driver who hit him, not the fault of a traffic officer who cited the suspect, Marcos Lopez Garcia, when he pulled him over Aug. 13.
Schwedhelm said he is sensitive to the tragedy that followed. But he said his officer was within his discretion under department policy to allow the car of the unlicensed driver to be parked at the scene until a licensed driver could move it, even though it was Garcia's second driving without a license offense.
"Our officers make decisions - dozens of decisions — every shift that they have," Schwedhelm said. "If we could predict the future, that's one thing, but we don't have those tools available to us. I'm sure the officer did what was in the best interests of the community at the time he made that stop."
Schwedhelm would not identify the officer.
The four-year-old boy was in a West Ninth Street crosswalk with his mother, his 6-year-old sister and his twin sister on their way to Jacobs Park for his older sister's soccer practice when he was hit. Garcia, 22, is suspected of being the driver who plowed through the crosswalk and struck the little boy Aug. 18, police said.
A witness identified a suspect vehicle and Garcia was tracked down and arrested, charged with felony hit and run, vehicular manslaughter and driving without a license. He was being held at the Sonoma County Jail without bail on an immigration hold, authorities said.
Garcia was first cited for driving without a license when he was stopped at a police checkpoint June 25, 2010, and his vehicle was impounded for 30 days, according to police and court records.
More recently, he was pulled over for speeding Aug. 13 on Dutton Avenue and found to be driving without a license, a misdemeanor, police said.
The officer could have impounded his car again but instead decided to leave it parked until someone with a valid license could retrieve it, Schwedhelm said.
Garcia was cited to appear in court Oct. 18 and was ordered not to drive a vehicle, police said.
That decision not to impound the vehicle is within department policy, and reflects recent changes brought on by discussions between law enforcement and church and community groups critical of the impact of the impound policy on the immigrant community.
California law permits law enforcement authorities to impound the cars of any unlicensed driver for 30 days.
Sgt. Rich Celli, one of two sergeants who directly supervise the Santa Rosa Police traffic unit, said officers must have discretion on impoundment if for no other reason than the time involved - about 45 minutes - to wait for a tow truck and have the car hitched up, especially if there are emergency calls.
"I don't know what happened at that specific event, but with the number of officers we have out on the street, that's a significant amount of time taken away from officer's duties."