Undocumented immigrants caught driving without a license in Oakland used to pay hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars in tow and impound fees -- often racking up lost wages -- before they could get their cars back.

But the police department quietly changed its policy in November, and now motorists whose immigration status prevents them from obtaining a license are allowed to sign a waiver and leave their car parked nearby, or call a friend or family member to immediately come pick it up.

Oakland City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who represents the Glenview and Fruitvale districts, said the new policy ends a practice that unfairly netted unintended targets during traffic enforcement operations.

"The purpose was to get drunk drivers, or people with warrants or with guns, but the unintended consequence was most of the drivers who got cited were unlicensed immigrant drivers," De La Fuente said. "I remember one night last fall on Foothill Boulevard and 34th Avenue, about 29 cars were impounded. One was a family with a baby in the back, and they had to walk home.

"The law is the law, but we can apply it with some sensitivity," De La Fuente added. "The intent of these actions is definitely to get criminals, not people who are just trying to work and feed their family."

The change in policy applies only to drivers who have never had a license because state law forbids it, and not to motorists whose driver's license has been suspended or allowed to expire. The new policy also does not apply to drivers who are putting the public at risk by participating in sideshows or speeding, have warrants or are driving while drunk or on drugs.

Youth leaders with Oakland Community Organizations had pushed for the change in policy for a few years, said community organizer Emma Paulino. Through their research, they found that on average, more than 50 cars owned by undocumented drivers were towed and impounded every month, and the drivers paid an average of $2,500 to retrieve their vehicles. The policy also made the immigrant community feel unfairly targeted and distrustful of police.

"It's amazing how many immigrants were caught up in this," she said. "It took three years of work, with different police chiefs, to get it done."

Berkeley adopted a similar policy in November and San Francisco did so a year earlier.

According to Lt. Mike Poirier, who gave a report at the Jan. 11 Public Safety meeting, first-time offenders receive a citation.

If they agree to sign a waiver holding the city harmless for any damage, they can park their car on a city street and have someone pick it up later if there is no licensed passenger in the car. If someone is stopped more than once in a six-month period, the car will be towed, Poirier said.

Last year, the city earned $360,000 in revenue from tow and impound release fees, but that figure will go down because of the change, Poirier said.

Some towing companies have also seen their business drop since the city changed its policy.

Ismael Santoyo, of Ismy's Towing in East Oakland, said the new policy, combined with other changes such as fewer checkpoints being run by the Police Department, fewer sideshows and allowing drivers whose cars were booted for nonpayment of parking tickets more time to pay before a tow is called, have nearly put him out of business. The undocumented tows and impound fees represented about 50 to 60 percent of his business, he said.

"We used to do 100-200 tows a week, now we do 25-50 a week," Santoyo said. "I've had to lay off three drivers and a mechanic and cut my overhead. I had to stop insurance on three trucks. Before, the city used the boot only until the tow was called, but now people have 72 hours to pay."

Santoyo said he recognizes that a big part of his problem will result in a better situation for fellow Latinos.

"We feel bad because this business is our life, but people drive without a license because they have to work, they have families and they have to drive," he said.

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