Friday, June 1, 2007

Driving while Hispanic

Here's what happened when I tried to follow up on what happened to the Latino driver of the white van I saw pulled over for no apparent reason Wednesday on the Pacific Coast Highway:

1) I called the "Lost Hills" Los Angeles Sheriff department station at 310-456-6652 and asked to speak with the Operations Deputy. I was put through to voice mail for Shawn something and left a message (the second one, after also stopping by the station on Wednesday evening).

2) Concerned that no one would return my calls, I called the Los Angeles County Department of Ombudsman at 213-738-2003. I explained what had occurred and asked about the rules for the Sheriff's Department releasing information. Mario Miranda did not know these rules and said that his office only provides information in the case of complaints. I told him that this is not what the text on the Ombudsman website stated, that it said that the office was a "professional, neutral and impartial forum for people who seek answers and solutions to problems" and there was no requirement that obtaining answers required filing a formal complaint. He told me I should obtain this information about the rules for releasing information from the Sheriff's Department from the Sheriff's Department. "But what if no one calls me back? Are they obligated to provide this information?" He said he did not know and when I asked if someone else in his office would know, he told me no and gave me the number of the ACLU.

3) I called the ACLU. 213-977-9500. Wow. Their voice mail greeting makes Verizon seem warm and fuzzy. I did not push the various digits associated with: being a lawyer who wants to volunteer, becoming a member, finding out about events, becoming a volunteer, membership in the lesbian and gay rights chapter, finding a speaker for my group, informing them of the questioning of Muslims by the FBI, making a donation, LA County jail issues, wanting to be an intern. And as if they don't have enough to do, the LA County's Mario Miranda has decided that there should be a new button: answering questions about the County government that the County government cannot answer. I held and spoke to the operator, who transferred me to the beleaguered-sounding voice mail greeting of Mary Sylla. I left a message.

4) I called another number on the Ombudsman web page, 800-801-0030 and found the public's guardian angel, Rose Curry. She also told me that I needed to call the Sheriff Department for this information. "But what if I leave messages and they don't call me back?" She said, "Just a minute." A couple of minutes later she said that she had just spoken to a Diane or Diana at the Lost Hills station and that apparently all the operations staff were away for the day. She told me to call back at 818-878-1808 and ask to speak to "Watch Sargent Webber," which I did. I was immediately transferred and explained my concerns to him.

5) Much to my surprise, Watch Sargent Webber did not obfuscate but t0ok the information I gave him and went through his database to find the incident. After a bit of searching he found the traffic stop, "This must be it. An Hispanic male, around 27000 Pacific Coast Highway." I asked him why the car was pulled over. He said that the officer had run a check on the license plate and there was a warrant out, that this likely meant that a fine hadn't been paid for a ticket. I asked if there was any traffic violation associated with this event and he said there wasn't.

I hung up the phone. Then thought a minute and called back. "But why did the officer run the plate in the first place?"

Watch Sargent Webber said pretty much what you'd expect, and a few things dumber than you'd expect. First he said that officers ran plates all the time, hundreds of them all day, that he'd run plates on Mercedes SUVs and Toyotas, doesn't matter. "If you check the statistics you'd find that we run more plates on White people than Hispanics, simply because there are more White people who live here." Hmmm. Not so sure that Latinos will be comforted learning that even though they may be pulled over at ten times the rate of Whites, the fact that they only work in Malibu and don't live there means that in absolute terms they're receiving less scrutiny.
"But this is precisely the question: do you run plates for non-Hispanic Caucasians at a proportionately lower rate than you run the plates for Blacks and Hispanics? Do you have these statistics?" He said that he did have the data but that no one had analyzed them to compare the profiles of people whose license plates were being checked.

I asked him if he had any other information on the event other than the citation and he said no, even though the webpage says that each event requires the office to write a brief report. I said I called back because of the concern that what I feared was exactly what had transpired, that absent any cause other than the driver's race, the officer had searched the database for the license plate number. "Why do you think the officer ran this plate?" I asked and Watch Sargent Webber told me "I have no idea."
"Was the driver detained?"
"No, he was released with a citation." Relieved that the driver was not in custody and not sure of what else to say, I thanked him for finding the incident and speaking about it to me and hung up.

Maybe this was a routine stop and all the phone calls are a symptom of some obsessive compulsive disorder on my part. After all, there was a warrant out associated with the van. But the current version of S. 1348, a measure that has already been endorsed by a majority of the Senate, will criminalize Latinos for entering the country without a visa. If a country, through its representative institutions, wants to put certain people in prison for lacking the equivalent of a license to breathe air in Malibu, then I guess it makes it easier to think that also because of ethnicity, people might be singled out for driving there. (More on the nationality/ethnicity connection later.)

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