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Commission deadlocks on new police proposal for impounding cars

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 by Jack Craver

The Public Safety Commission deadlocked on a proposal to expand the Austin Police Department’s ability to impound a car when the driver does not have a driver’s license.

The proposed ordinance, put forth by the Austin Police Department, would allow police to tow and impound a car that has been involved in a crash if the driver does not have a license or has a suspended license.

It would also allow police to impound a vehicle in response to any traffic stop if the driver lacks a license and has two prior convictions or if the driver has a suspended license due to a drug or drunken driving offense or has been classified as a “habitual violator” for repeated moving violations.

The ordinance is framed as part of Vision Zero, the city’s ongoing efforts to reduce traffic fatalities. Last year, 102 people died on Austin roads, an all-time high. According to police data, 28 percent of traffic fatalities over the past five years have involved drivers who lack licenses or have had their licenses revoked.

Commissioner Kim Rossmo, a retired Vancouver police officer, welcomed the proposal as a necessary response to irresponsible behavior. He even suggested that the commission could make it “more draconian” but said that would raise the prospect that City Council wouldn’t approve it.

Indeed, the objections raised by fellow commissioners foreshadowed potential opposition from Council members.

Commissioner Daniela Nunez voiced concerns in particular about the impact of the proposal on undocumented immigrants. “There are many people in our community who are not eligible to get driver’s licenses because of broken federal immigration policy,” she said.

According to the proposal, she added, a person might lose their car after a traffic stop simply because they had had their license suspended for a low-level drug offense. A police representative confirmed that licenses can be suspended for drug offenses unrelated to driving.

Austin Police Chief of Staff Brian Manley said that state law allows the city to impound the vehicles of and arrest those who are caught driving without a license. Creating the proposed policy, he said, would allow the department to impound cars rather than arrest people.

Nunez’s reasoning didn’t appeal to Rossmo or Commissioner Mike Levy.

“Would you be more comfortable if you knew with certainty that if we passed this, it would save one life?” asked Levy.

Rossmo similarly said he was “sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants” but that driving without a license was unacceptable on public safety grounds. The 100 people who have been killed over the past five years in accidents involving drivers without licenses are evidence of the problem, he said.

“We wouldn’t have this city built if we didn’t have undocumented immigrants driving to work,” said Nunez.

“That’s not much of a consolation to those 100 people who have been killed,” replied Rossmo.

Commissioner Bill Worsham did not mention the issue of undocumented immigrants but said he was “not comfortable casting such a wide net” in the effort to reduce fatalities. Worsham has previously voiced discomfort with the city’s stated goal of eliminating traffic deaths, arguing that it’s unrealistic.

A number of other large cities in Texas, including San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, Waco and Corpus Christi, already have policies in place similar to what APD has proposed.

A motion to recommend the proposed ordinance to Council garnered five votes in support and five against, meaning it failed. Commissioners Brian Haley, Sam Holt and Ed Scruggs joined Levy and Rossmo in support of the motion. Along with Nunez and Worsham, Chair Rebecca Webber and commissioners Preston Tyree and Rebecca Gonzales voted against.

Photo by dwightsghost made available through a Creative Commons license.

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