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Where Have All the Lawyers Gone?
updated: Aug 03, 2013, 4:00 PM

By Karen Pelland

Taurino Torres was driving home with his 11-year-old son when he made what he thought was a routine turn onto East Gutierrez Street from Milpas Street in downtown Santa Barbara. A police car pulled him over and, according to Torres, the officer asked him if he knew why she stopped him. He didn't. The officer said he had been speeding and changed lanes without signaling. Torres denied the speeding charge, which, he says, upset the officer.

"She said, ‘Give me your car keys!" Torres recalls, replaying the Feb. 4, 2011 incident as if it happened yesterday. "I said, ‘No, I'm not going to give you my car keys.' And then she said it again."

Torres' son pleaded with his dad to hand over the keys. Instead, Torres dropped them on the floor of his car. At that point, the officer called for backup, ordered Torres out onto the curb and questioned him. She asked him for his driver's license. Torres, who had just gotten his license renewed, only had a permit and didn't have that with him. He offered his expired license instead.


Emily Allen, a lawyer with Legal Aid, consults a client. (Karen Castillo Farfan)

An on-site computer check of California DMV records showed that Torres' license was "valid, withheld by the Department of Motor Vehicles"-meaning something was holding up the issuance of a new or renewed license. Next thing he knew, a tow truck was hauling his car away and he was cited for driving without a valid driver's license, as well as speeding and making an unsafe turn. Torres was confused- he knew he had a valid permit.

One of the officers gave Torres and his son a ride home, where he promptly found and showed the officer his valid permit. "You should have had it with you," the officer told him.

The following Monday, Torres took the day off from his construction job so he could retrieve his car from the impound lot. Nearly $600 later, plus $200 in lost wages, he had his car back. In addition, the three tickets ended up costing Torres more than $500.

Torres fled his home in the southwestern state of Michoacán, Mexico in 1984, where, he says he could "hardly afford a bicycle." His goal was to make it to Santa Barbara because he had an aunt and uncle who lived here. He made the journey by himself but eventually built a family-he has four children-and became a U.S. citizen in 2000. He is 49 years old. He has lived in other U.S. cities briefly, but Santa Barbara has always felt like home to Torres.

"I love living in Santa Barbara," he says.

Sitting at a conference table in his lawyer's office, Torres is weathered, stocky and soft-spoken. He is dressed in the work clothes he wore to the eastside construction site where he was assigned that day. He says the police in Santa Barbara have a habit of targeting Latinos.

"I knew she didn't have the right to ask for my keys before asking for my driver's license," Torres says. He told the officer that she was making him feel like an illegal immigrant. "Which I'm not. I'm a legal citizen," he says. "They always think, oh, we're all Latinos, we're not going to do anything, we're not going to say anything, and we're all going to stay quiet."

Outraged at how he had been treated that night, Torres went to the local nonprofit economic justice group Pueblo, which helped him file a claim with the city for his financial losses. The claim was denied and the city told him to find a lawyer if he wanted to pursue the claim.

Torres nets $700 a week, so a lawyer is hardly in his budget. But he got lucky-Santa Barbara attorney Joe Allen heard about Torres' case at a local American Civil Liberties Union Christmas party and took it on pro bono-for free.

"Turns out he is a nice guy, and I wanted to help him," says Allen. "The reason for the stop was not whatever violation the officer thought she saw. The reason for the stop was that she was hunting for Hispanic, unlicensed, undocumented people."

To bolster his claim, Allen keeps on hand a 36-page spreadsheet of data obtained from the Santa Barbara Police Department last year by the Santa Barbara Independent. The data compiles 1,100 citations over a 12-month period starting June 1, 2011 for driving without a valid license, which by law can result in car impoundment.

Based on evidence showing a pattern of excessive traffic stops in poor Latino neighborhoods and interviews with several of those stopped, Allen is convinced the police target drivers like Torres as possible undocumented immigrants.

To read the rest of this article, visit Mission & State.

 

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