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Denver car-impound initiative has many foes

A mandate to seize the vehicles of unlicensed drivers is called an attempt to target illegal immigrants. But the proposal's author wants to avoid 'a nightmare' with unsafe, uninsured motorists.

November 02, 2009|DeeDee Correll

DENVER — Like their counterparts in cities across Colorado, Denver police decide when to seize cars from people they find driving without licenses. Sometimes they issue a ticket and let a relative take the car home; other times, they call a tow company.

But officers stand to lose that discretion as voters on Tuesday will consider a measure that would mandate authorities to impound vehicles driven by unlicensed motorists -- an initiative pushed by a local man who says law enforcement isn't doing its job of ridding city streets of unsafe, uninsured drivers.

"They talk about how police have better things to do. I don't agree. I think taking unlicensed drivers off the road is one of the most important things they can do," said Dan Hayes, 62, who wrote the initiative and collected enough signatures to place it on the ballot.

Opponents contend the initiative is a thinly disguised attempt to target illegal immigrants, noting that it would require police to take the cars of anyone suspected of being an "illegal alien."

They also argue that it would harm motorists who innocently forget their wallets at home. Officers can verify via computer whether someone has a valid license. But the problem, police say, is that people give fake names -- so without a photo ID, they can't be sure they're dealing with the right person.

"When laws are made out of fear instead of rational thought, it doesn't do good to anyone in our city," said Jessie Ulibarri, spokesman for Coloradans for Safe Communities, a coalition of nonprofits and faith groups opposing the measure.

If approved, the law would make Denver's approach unique. Statewide, officers have the authority but not the mandate to impound cars, said Colorado State Patrol Sgt. John Hahn. The same is true in California, where officers have the discretion to decide when vehicles are taken, the California Highway Patrol said.

In 2008, Hayes, a real estate broker and property manager, proposed a nearly identical measure, which mandated impoundments and required that a driver post a $2,500 bond within 30 days to retrieve a car.

Denver residents approved the measure, but city attorneys ruled that the ordinance was vague and that police still had the discretion to decide when to tow cars, although the city did begin imposing the $2,500 bond.

Angered that police were not abiding by the ordinance as he intended it, Hayes wrote another version of the law that clearly removed police discretion.

He argued that unlicensed drivers generally didn't carry insurance, making them a menace.

"Almost everybody has had or knows somebody who's been hit by an uninsured driver. It's a real nightmare. It's time we did something about it," he said.

The initiative, he added, would make allowances for drivers who forget their licenses but have other documents to prove who they are.

Hayes dismissed charges of racism, but said he considered illegal immigrants to be a large part of the problem. "To allow illegal aliens to drive our streets and only give them a small fine is an outrage," he said.

The measure is opposed by immigrant rights groups, elected leaders and law enforcement officials, who call it an unreasonable, expensive approach that would crowd impound lots and take up officers' time and prevent them from responding to other calls. Police seize about 50 cars a day, said Sabrina D'Agosta, spokeswoman for Mayor John Hickenlooper, who joined council members in opposing the measure.

Since the city began requiring the $2,500 bond, the percentage of people reclaiming their cars from impound lots has dropped to 66% from 75%, she said.

Officials also object to the notion of trying to assess a driver's citizenship, D'Agosta said. Police have no way of verifying immigration status and don't attempt to do so.

"That would be racial profiling," she said.


Correll writes for The Times.

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