RED QUEEN JUSTICE

A day after the death of UíKendra Johnson in a late-night traffic accident on Seminary Avenue, Mayor Jerry Brown told the Tribune that he was calling for a state law giving police power to seize the cars of sideshow drivers for 30 days.

"You impound a few hundred cars, that ought to help," he was quoted as saying. "Let them take BART home to San Francisco or wherever they come from."

Two and a half months later, with little study and no public discussion at all in Oakland, where the bill will have its biggest impact, SB1489 now being considered by the California legislature. Co-sponsored by State Senator Don Perata and Assemblymember Wilma Chan, the bill would allow for the towing and mandatory 30 day seizure of carsÖwithout a prior hearingÖfor the offenses of reckless driving on a street or in a parking lot. Given recent charges by Oakland towing companies such as A& B AutoÖabout $30 a day and $80 for towingÖthis amounts to a thousand dollar fine.

"Reckless driving" is defined in the California Vehicle Code as driving "in
willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property." But how is that defined? You donít have to hit anything. You donít have to exceed the speed limit. In fact, you donít even have to put any persons or property in danger. It all comes down to the word of the police officer who makes the charge.

We accept that situation in traffic court because the assumption is made that police officers are not prejudiced against any individual driver, and therefore have no reason to falsely testify that they saw a driver run a red light or make an illegal turn. Itís not always true, that police officers always tell the truth, but we make that assumption anyway. But when the mayor of a city publicly announces that the purpose of a law is to drive a certain group of citizens out of town, well, itís clear that police officers have a built-in incentive to, well, embellish the facts. That ought to give us pause about supporting this bill.

The other thing that ought to worry us is the provision, under SB1489, that autos can be seized first, and held, and a hearing is provided later. This is Alice-In-Wonderland justice, Red Queen justice, where the punishment comes first and the trial second. It reverses one of the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution and 200 years of U.S. law, where the government is not supposed to be able to seize your property without first providing you "due process" (the right to have a hearing in court). This is one of the rights that the American Revolution was fought over.

Two arguments stand out against the Perata/Chan bill:

1) In order to trigger the confiscation provisions of SB1489, a driver has to be accused of a violation of California Vehicle Code Section 23103, the reckless driving statute. Punishment for violation of this law already calls for up to 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. Have OPD officers been charging sideshow drivers under the reckless driving statute? If so, I havenít heard about it. And if not, why not?

2) The Perata/Chan bill would not deal at all with the situation that led to the death of UíKendra Johnson. The "reckless driving" on Foothill Boulevard had little or nothing to do with Johnsonís death five blocks away. Eric Crawfordís alleged driving while drinking and Oakland Police officers engaging in a high-speed chase through residential streets with no warning lights flashing and no siren probably played the major part. Maybe thatís where Perata and Chan might want to look at stiffer penalties.

3) Why have no public hearings been held in Oakland?

When he introduced his auto confiscation bill, Mr. Perata told the Tribune that "historically this type of [legislation] has been opposed by civil libertarians. Itís the people who live in the clouds versus the people who live in the neighborhoods."

I donít know where Mr. Perata lives. Me, I live off of Seminary Avenue, three blocks from where UíKendra Johnson died. And I think SB1489 is a bad bill, folks.


Originally Published May 1, 2002 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA