Santa Rosa appealing federal ruling on vehicle impound

Santa Rosa plans to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that police violated the constitutional rights of an unlicensed driver by impounding his truck for 30 days without a warrant.

If it stands, the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson could have statewide implications because many law enforcement agencies have similar impound policies.

“It’s a big deal that the judge found that they have been seizing vehicles without a warrant in violation of the constitution,” said Alicia Roman, one of the attorneys representing plaintiff Simeon Ruiz.

City Attorney Caroline Fowler agreed that the ruling represents a “case of first impression” that could have sweeping implications on impound policies of law enforcement agencies around the state.

“We would like a ruling from a higher court to clarify this important public policy issue,” Fowler said.

A ruling on the issue is important because other courts have held that impoundments in nearly identical situations are legal, and because it could impact the scope of the class-action status being pursued in the case, Fowler said.

The vehicle impound policies of law enforcement agencies have been a flashpoint in the immigration debate in Sonoma County. Critics contend police have misused DUI checkpoints to seize the vehicles of sober but unlicensed drivers, primarily undocumented immigrants who cannot obtain a driver’s license under California law. Others argue that unlicensed drivers are inherently more dangerous than licensed ones, as evidenced by studies and local accidents, including one in 2011 that killed a 4-year-old boy in a West Ninth Street crosswalk.

Henderson ruled that the city’s justifications for impounding Ruiz’s vehicle - that it was allowed by state law, that doing so cleared the vehicle from the road and that Ruiz was a dangerous driver - were not compelling enough to merit taking away his only mode of transportation without a warrant.

“For many people, the use of a car is essential for such necessary activities as getting to work and purchasing food; the loss of a vehicle for 30 days can cause significant disruption in a person’s life,” Henderson wrote.

Ruiz, a local vineyard worker, was stopped at a DUI/license checkpoint in September 2011. He didn’t have a California license and he previously had been cited several times for driving without a license. Roman declined to comment on his immigration status, but immigration rights advocates have said the impound policies disproportionately impact undocumented immigrants.

Police impounded Ruiz’s Silverado pickup even though he had a friend with a valid license who could have taken possession of it. His request to get his truck back several days later was denied.

Because he didn’t have a vehicle, Ruiz lost out on a week of work. He also had to pay a hefty storage fee of about $2,200 to get his truck back, Roman said.

A state law passed later in 2011 set tighter restrictions on how sobriety checkpoints are run, with an eye toward making it easier for undocumented immigrants to keep their vehicles.

The city argued that its 30-day impound policy was legal because it was allowed by state law. The judge ruled that being allowable by state law does not mean it does not violate the Fourth Amendment right around unreasonable search and seizure.

The city also argued that the impound was valid under the “community caretaking” exception, which allows police to remove vehicles from the street without a warrant “when the vehicle poses an obstacle to the flow of traffic or otherwise jeopardizes public safety.”

That might justify impounding a car for a short period, but not 30 days, the judge found.

Finally, the city argued that Ruiz’s previous violations for driving without a license showed he was unsafe. Ruiz had previously had a driver’s license in Mexico, and the city offered “virtually no evidence Ruiz himself was unsafe.”

“None of these arguments are convincing,” Henderson wrote.

The City Council voted 4-2 last month to appeal the ruling. The city has since asked Henderson to suspend the federal case to allow them to appeal his ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Sonoma County is a defendant in the same lawsuit for a nearly identical circumstance, but a ruling on the legality of the county’s impound policy is on hold while it appeals a different legal issue in the case, Fowler said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum?

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