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Sebastopol takes steps to reduce impounds

  • Juana Gutierrez, an undocumented immigrant who does not have a drivers license, drives to a doctor's appointment with her daughter, 5-year-old Miranda Gonzalez, in Sebastopol. Under a new Sebastopol city ordinance, those caught driving without a license for the first time would still get a traffic ticket, but not have their cars impounded. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/Press Democrat)

For two months last fall, Juana Gutierrez drove her husband from their ranch shack in Sebastopol to his daily radiation appointments in Santa Rosa.

Each time she got behind the wheel of her late-model Toyota Camry, Gutierrez — an undocumented immigrant who cannot obtain a driver's license — risked getting pulled over and having her car impounded for 30 days.

Her husband, Hermenejildo Gonzalez, was dying of cancer at the age of 43. To her usual daily prayers, Gutierrez added another supplication.

“Every day I drove him and that whole time I prayed to the virgin that the police not stop me,” said Gutierrez, 40, speaking in Spanish.

Gonzalez died three months ago and Gutierrez is still praying that she doesn't get pulled over.

Such invocations will soon be answered with the implementation of a new state law passed last fall that allows undocumented immigrants, possibly as many as 1.4 million, the opportunity to obtain driver's licenses. The state Department of Motor Vehicles has until Jan. 1, 2015 to establish testing, licensing and insurance requirements for undocumented drivers.

Until then, the impound rule still stands and undocumented immigrants must continue to run the gauntlet of regular police patrols and driver's license checkpoints.

In Sebastopol, however, local law enforcement, city officials and immigration advocates are working together to create a stopgap solution that will offer some relief from the impound rule.

Earlier this week, the Sebastopol City Council adopted a resolution that seeks to minimize the number of vehicles that are impounded. Drivers who are caught driving without a license will receive a ticket but will not have their cars towed if it a first offense, as of the date the resolution was enacted.

California stripped undocumented immigrants of their driving privileges in 1993 when it enacted a law that requires residents to provide a Social Security number and proof of legal residency to obtain a driver's license.

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