Measure would impound

Backers radically oppose illegal immigration

By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Ever forgotten your driver’s license at home? If so, you might want to take a closer look at Denver’s August primary ballot. One of its offerings will be a proposed ordinance that, if approved, would require Denver police to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers, and might include the vehicles of legal drivers who simply leave their wallets behind on the dresser.

The new ballot measure, Initiated Question 100, has a number of opponents complaining the measure is unfairly aimed at undocumented immigrants and the poor, and many, including several Denver City Council members, charge that it’s unnecessary because the law already provides severe penalties for anyone caught driving without a license.

“It’s just beating the crap out of people who can’t get a license, and we know who those people are,” said Councilman Chris Nevitt, who voted against referring the measure to the ballot.

City Councilman Rick Garcia called the measure “mean-spirited, egregious and unnecessary.”

“They gathered their support primarily from saying, ‘This is how we can ensure illegal aliens are not driving,’ ” Garcia charged.

The measure would require any unlicensed driver who is caught to post a $2,500 bond — which the city would hold for one year — to get the car out of hock. The bond would be forfeited if anyone, including a friend or family member, is caught driving the automobile without a license.

Daniel Hayes, treasurer of the Future Denver Committee, the group pushing Question 100, said the measure was born of a desire to ensure public safety. He said it’s aimed at anyone who drives without a license, not just undocumented immigrants.

“The courts, they slap these people on the wrist, and they go right back out and drive away,” said Hayes, a 61-year-old property manager who lives in unincorporated Jefferson County. “Nobody goes to jail on this. It’s just their car is towed away … It’s not cheap to own a car. If they can’t afford to own a car, then they can’t afford to own a car.”

He added, “If you’re driving with a suspended or revoked license or if you’re an illegal immigrant who has no license, you’re in the same boat. It’s aimed at both.”

When asked who is supporting the measure, Hayes noted that some support comes from the Colorado chapter of the Minutemen, an anti-illegal-immigration group that sends volunteers down to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.

Another proponent, Denver resident John Daniel, said the idea for such a measure came to him after a visit to traffic court, where he watched a number of traffic violators pay their fines for driving without a license and then, “They’d walk right outside and get in the car with no license and drive away.”

“So we decided that made no sense,” said Daniel, a 51-year-old computer specialist.

Daniel became the lead proponent of the measure after the death in February of its original backer, anti-illegal-immigration activist Waldo Benavidez.

Daniel and the Future Denver Committee have a hard road in front of them. Not only do they have to contend with the seriously low turnout that always marks primary votes, they’ll also have to face off against well-organized opposition.

James Johnson, civic engagement director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, said a campaign already is in the works and will be announced shortly. Organizations involved in the effort so far include the Service Employees International Union, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Rights for All People and Padres Unidos.

Johnson said he and other opponents view the measure as overly punitive and believe it will increase the cost of driving for working families throughout the metro area. He also said it might easily hamstring licensed drivers who, for example, forgot their wallets before rolling through stop signs.

“That would really hurt working people, to have to pay all these fines to actually get your car back,” Johnson said.

But Hayes disagreed. He noted that the law has a stipulation for licensed drivers to be given a warning and allowed to go without having their cars impounded.

Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell, however, said it’s not that simple. He noted that the law also allows for discretion on the part of the police officer, without clearly defining the boundaries or guidelines the officer should follow. So the question of whether licensed drivers could be at risk, Broadwell said, “Is up in the air.”

Regardless, said Garcia, the city already impounds roughly 20,000 cars a year and provides for various penalties for driving without a license. Garcia, like Nevitt, also voted against referring the measure to the ballot, partly, he said, because such an ordinance would be very difficult to implement.

“They have to call a tow truck, wait till the tow truck arrives, and then do all the paperwork,” Garcia said. “A lot of officers have already expressed their concern about enforcing this.”

The central change the ordinance would enact, said Broadwell, would be to change the law from “‘may’ impound to ‘shall’ impound.”

“What this allows for is your car to be confiscated as soon as you’re pulled over,” Johnson charged.

The measure’s placement on the primary ballot as opposed to the general election ballot is also simply a coincidence, said Denver elections division spokesman Alton Dillard. To refer a measure to the municipal ballot, petition gatherers must collect enough signatures to equal 5 percent of the votes cast in the most recent mayoral election. This year, 5 percent came to 3,972. The Future Denver Committee submitted 7,424 names, and 4,264 of those signatures were found to be valid.

The matter was, therefore, forwarded to the City Council on April 22. In the case of an initiated measure, the City Council always has the option of either referring the matter to the voters or simply enacting it into law. Broadwell said no City Council has simply enacted a measure into law for at least 30 years, and this year, partly because Question 100 is so controversial, the City Council decided to add a second measure to the ballot.

Referred Question 1A would relieve the City Council of its duty in voting to place initiated measures on the ballot and instead would alter the city charter, directing the city clerk and recorder to put the measure on the ballot once the signature threshold has been met.

That way, City Council members avoid conflicts of conscience created by being forced to vote to put a measure they disdain on the ballot while, at the same time, streamlining the democratic process.

At the state level, for example, the Legislature doesn’t have to vote to send initiated measures to the ballot. The secretary of state does that automatically once the signature threshold has been met.

Hayes likes the timing of the primary ballot question because he thinks the Democratic Party will wind up with egg on its face when it passes just weeks before the Democratic National Convention convenes in Denver.

“It’ll send a message to these people. It’s the Democrats that are pushing amnesty,” Hayes said.

But Nevitt suggested that the Future Denver Committee would have been better off planning the timing of their signature submission later. The committee turned in the signatures in March. However, had they waited until after June 13, Question 100 would have received a spot on the general election ballot instead of the primary. After signatures are verified and the matter is sent to the City Council, the City Council is required to place the measure on the next possible ballot — and that was the Aug. 12 primary ballot.

Nevitt said that could prove to be an obstacle for the Future Denver Committee.

“Most of the people turning out will be Democratic primary voters, so if I were those guys, I wouldn’t have put it on the primary ballot. You get the most Republican turnout in the general election,” Nevitt said.

Still, Nevitt said he wouldn’t be surprised if the measure passes, given the public’s widespread frustration with illegal immigration.