By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For two months last fall, Juana Gutierrez drove her husband from their ranch shack in Sebastopol to his daily radiation appointments in Santa Rosa.
Each time she got behind the wheel of her late-model Toyota Camry, Gutierrez — a undocumented immigrant who cannot obtain a driver’s license — risked getting pulled over and having her car impounded for 30 days.
Her husband, Hermenejildo Gonzalez, was dying of cancer at the age of 43. To her usual daily prayers, Gutierrez added another supplication.
“Every day I drove him and that whole time I prayed to the virgin that the police not stop me,” said Gutierrez, 40, speaking in Spanish.
Gonzalez died three months ago and Gutierrez is still praying that she doesn’t get pulled over.
Such invocations will soon be answered with the implementation of a new state law passed last fall that allows undocumented immigrants, possibly as many as 1.4 million, the opportunity to obtain driver’s licenses. The state Department of Motor Vehicles has until Jan. 1, 2015 to establish testing, licensing and insurance requirements for undocumented drivers.
Until then, the impound rule still stands and undocumented immigrants must continue to run the gauntlet of regular police patrols and driver’s license checkpoints.
In Sebastopol, however, local law enforcement, city officials and immigration advocates are working together to create a stopgap solution that will offer some relief from the impound rule.
Earlier this week, the Sebastopol City Council adopted a resolution that seeks to minimize the number of vehicles that are impounded. Drivers who are caught driving without a license will receive a ticket but will not have their cars towed if it a first offense, as of the date the resolution was enacted.
California stripped undocumented immigrants of their driving privileges in 1993 when it enacted a law that requires residents to provide a Social Security number and proof of legal residency to obtain a driver’s license.
Two years later, the state adopted a policy — modeled after a grant-funded pilot program in Santa Rosa — that requires police to impound a car for 30 days if the driver is unlicensed or driving on a suspended or revoked license.
For Gutierrez, who has been stopped twice, Sebastopol’s resolution effectively gives her one more chance to avoid having her car impounded. The death of her husband had forced her to become the main breadwinner for her two children and her parents.
Gutierrez started cleaning houses and has become active with the domestic workers’ rights group at the Graton Day Labor Center. Now, she said, she’s driving more than ever.
Three years ago, Gutierrez was forced to forfeit her vehicle because she could not afford to pay the $2,000 impound cost to retrieve it after 30 days. Though she lost the car, she still had to pay about $600 for storage and a $14 recycling fee, she said.
“It will help us a lot,” she said. “That way we don’t have to fear that they’re going to take our cars. We won’t have to fear that they’re going to deport us for just going to court.”
The resolution essentially gives people like Gutierrez a clean slate.
“We may be little Sebastopol, but we have the ability to help those in need in our community,” said Mayor Robert Jacob. “This resolution in Sebastopol really does reduce hardships and my hope and goal is that other cities and counties across the state will see this resolution and work to enact similar policies.”
The Sebastopol Police Department is among a handful of local law enforcement agencies that already give unlicensed drivers relief from impounds for first-time offenses. Others include Santa Rosa, Petaluma and the Sheriff’s Office.
However, the west Sonoma County city is the first to give immigrants one more chance while the DMV works to implement the new law.
Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver was approached in early December by Jacob, who had been working with the Graton Day Labor Center and the North Bay Organizing Project on steps that could be taken in advance of the Jan. 1, 2015 implementation date of the new law.
Aside from offering relief to first-time offenders, the city will offer driver’s safety education to undocumented immigrants and reinforce the police department’s policy of accepting foreign consular identification cards as legitimate ID.
Also, Weaver said a 2013 federal court ruling led the department to re-examine its policy of towing vehicles of drivers who had never obtained a driver’s license in California, even if they had been issued a driver’s license from another country.
“There was a whole class of people whose cars would have been towed for 30 days. Now they’re not,” Weaver said. “First-timers and those with driver’s licenses from another country now will not be towed.”
He said it’s easier now to establish who will be towed: those who knowingly drive on a suspended or revoked license (with some exceptions) or those who have never been licensed anywhere with one prior violation of driving without a license.
Weaver stressed that all traffic rules will continue to be enforced, and while some undocumented immigrants may avoid the 30-day impound, they will receive a traffic ticket for driving without a license.
Weaver said the new driver’s license law could lead to a “less negative interaction with law enforcement” for undocumented immigrants.
“That will hopefully build some greater level of trust and connectivity or hopefully reduce the fear and anxiety they assumedly feel when they see a law enforcement officer,” he said.
Jesus Guzman, the lead organizer and program manager at the Graton Day Labor Center, said his organization is working with police to hold workshops where immigrants can get driver education and to encourage people to get their licenses, once they can.
In some cases, it’s the difference between paying hundreds or thousands of dollars.
A month after her husband died, Gutierrez said she got caught up in a DUI checkpoint in Sebastopol. Fearful and still distressed over her husband’s death, Gutierrez panicked and made a wrong turn on a one-way street.
Gutierrez said a female police officer must have taken pity on her because she only received a ticket — for both driving the wrong way on a one-way road and driving without a license. She now must come up with $640 to pay for the ticket, but she still has the car.