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City Settles Fourth Amendment Vehicle Towing Case for $15K

San Jose Mercury News via YellowBrix

May 10, 2011

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – Mountain View has reached a $15,000 settlement with a woman who alleged police officers violated her constitutional rights when they towed her car after a traffic stop last year.

Though the city didn’t admit to any wrongdoing, the case prompted it to change guidelines for when officers should tow vehicles driven by unlicensed drivers.

“Before, when we made an arrest for an unlicensed driver, we impounded the vehicle almost every time,” police spokeswoman Liz Wylie said Monday. “It was the exception not to.”

While investigating the Dec. 9, 2010, complaint filed by Guadalupe Saldana, the city learned that for many other police departments, towing the cars of unlicensed drivers is an exception and not the rule, Wylie said.

Saldana was a passenger in her vehicle on June 27 when police pulled it over. Officers arrested her boyfriend Adrian Herrera, who was behind the wheel and had been cited multiple times in the past for driving without a license. Instead of letting Saldana take her car, police impounded it for 30 days.

In her claim, Saldana said one of the officers was disrespectful and made “racially motivated comments.” She contends her Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the towing was tantamount to unreasonable search and seizure. She claims that although she showed police her license and registration, they left her on the sidewalk with her sister and four children.

“I would say it exposed an area where we needed more training and it exposed case law that had changed, that we were unaware had changed,” Wylie said. “We don’t feel we did anything incorrectly in this case.”

She said Herrera had been arrested before for driving without a license and the tow didn’t violate the department’s policy.

Saldana’s attorney didn’t return calls Monday seeking comment.

The city reached the settlement with Saldana in March, but had informed officers three months earlier it would be changing its policy.

“The notice instructed officers to apply the ‘community caretaker standard’ when considering whether or not to impound a vehicle upon arresting the driver for being an unlicensed driver,” Wylie said in an email.

Now, she said, police should release a car to a licensed registered owner or a licensed driver who has the owner’s consent, as long as the car isn’t a hazard and there is no reason to believe its release could put the community at risk.

The city’s policy is still being developed, but officers were provided with a “training and information bulletin” in March that is effective until the new policy becomes official, Wylie said.

The policy change largely applies to people who haven’t obtained a driver’s license or who have an expired license, not to those driving with a suspended or revoked license, Wylie said.

As a result of the pending policy change, impounds were down 82 percent between January and April compared to the same time period last year, Wylie said.

According to records from the city’s finance and administrative services department, Mountain View has collected $88,700 in towing fees so far in the 2010-11 fiscal year, a little more than the $85,800 it received in the previous fiscal year.

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