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Dallas police draw ire for citing 'non-English-speaking drivers'

The police chief says the tickets would be thrown out and the officers investigated.

October 27, 2009|Kate Linthicum

Over the last three years, police in Dallas have ticketed 39 drivers for not speaking English, even though there is no law requiring drivers be able to do so.

Amid growing public anger, Police Chief David Kunkle announced last week that the citations would be thrown out and that the officers who issued them would be investigated.

The cases came to light when a Mexican immigrant, Ernestina Mondragon, went to the media saying that she had been cited for being a "non-English-speaking driver" during a routine traffic stop. There is no such law in Dallas, although there is a federal statute that says commercial drivers must be able to speak English.

Mondragon told reporters that she had been driving her daughter to school on Oct. 2 when she was pulled over for making an illegal U-turn. Mondragon, who has been a legal resident since 1980, speaks mostly Spanish. She was cited for disregarding a traffic control device and for failure to present a driver's license, as well as for her inability to speak English.

Mondragon said that she was embarrassed by the incident and that her 11-year-old daughter was traumatized.

The charge was dropped when she challenged it in court. But the case generated an outcry in Dallas, where Latinos make up roughly 40% of the population and are the city's largest racial or ethnic group.

"It's unbelievable," said Hector Flores, former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a nationwide civil rights group. "It's racial profiling. She was cited for driving while Hispanic. For driving while immigrant."

The attention surrounding Mondragon's case led police to investigate whether similar charges had been filed in the past. At a news conference Friday, Kunkle said at least six officers had charged 38 other drivers with not speaking English. Kunkle said all the charges would be dropped and people who had paid a $204 fine would be reimbursed.

In Mondragon's case, Kunkle said rookie officer Gary Bromley had been confused by a pull-down menu on his computer that listed "non-English-speaking driver" as an option, even though it is part of a federal law that Dallas police do not enforce.

Flores said he was suspicious of that explanation and suggested that the officers might have been motivated by racism.

"When there's a shortage of jobs, [racism] increases," he said. "We go through these periods where you have English-only battles."

Flores said he was heartened by the public's reaction, which he said indicated a low tolerance for English-only policies.

In New Mexico, a different English-only policy has stirred controversy.

Several former employees of a hotel in Taos have sued its owner, Larry Whitten, for wrongful termination. They said they were fired after complaining when Whitten ordered them not to speak in Spanish and asked some of them to Anglicize their names. Whitten did not return phone calls seeking comment Monday.

New Mexico is a bilingual state, meaning all official documents must be produced in English and Spanish.

In Taos, where Latinos are the majority, the fired workers have been picketing across the street from the hotel. Latino rights groups also have organized boycotts of Whitten's other hotels in Texas.

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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