SF's dangerous policies on unlicensed drivers

By Debra J. Saunders
San Francisco Chronicle
January 11, 2013

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detained Roberto Galo on Wednesday morning. Galo is a legal immigrant but an unlicensed driver who, on Nov. 16, 2010, took a left-hand turn at Harrison and 16th streets. His car struck law student Drew Rosenberg. Witnesses later testified that Galo then backed his car over Rosenberg, who died.
The law student's father, Don Rosenberg of Westlake Village (Los Angeles County), has been waging a crusade ever since. He's angry at San Francisco's policy, announced by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2009, that shielded unlicensed drivers from an automatic 30-day impoundment of their vehicles. He's furious that Galo was able to retrieve his Chevy the day after police stopped him for driving the wrong way on a street and without a license. That's the car Galo drove into Drew Rosenberg. He's enraged at the judge who reduced a felony manslaughter charge against Galo to a misdemeanor. He can't believe that Galo served only 43 days for the crime.
"My wife and I really didn't care if he was sentenced to a day," Rosenberg told me in November. "Our focus became: Convict him of the two misdemeanors and deport him. That's a worse punishment than whether he spends a couple of months in jail." Rosenberg has spent months contacting politicians to push the system to act. On Wednesday, ICE did.
"We took him into custody. We're holding him without bond. We have basically filed the paperwork to initiate removal proceedings," ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice told me. "ICE doesn't have the authority to unilaterally deport someone."
I have written about Galo in the past few months, but I get no joy in learning of his fate. His children will suffer, and they didn't do anything to deserve it.
Galo, however, did screw up. He endangered the general public. As a legal immigrant with temporary protective status, he was eligible to apply for a driver's license. He didn't get one. While he was trying to retain legal residency, he flouted California law by driving without a license. He got caught, and he did it again. Someone died.
Unlicensed driving is not a victimless crime. A recent Department of Motor Vehicles study found that unlicensed drivers are nearly three times as likely as licensed drivers to cause fatal crashes. They're more likely to flee the scene of a crash - which makes them more dangerous.
"This nonsense has to stop," Rosenberg told me. He is appalled that San Francisco City Hall has gone out of its way to tell illegal immigrants, who cannot apply for a California license, and also all unlicensed drivers, that they can get behind the wheel and get cited by police and their cars won't be impounded.
Consider the message that Newsom and then-Police Chief (now District Attorney) George Gascón sent when they announced in 2009 that they were behind a policy to allow unlicensed drivers pulled over by police - presumably for a reason - to call friends, who could drive away their cars to avoid an impound.
San Francisco banned Happy Meals with toys, for health reasons. Newsom pushed a measure that prohibited pharmacies from selling cigarettes, for health reasons. Yet Newsom bestowed his blessing on unlicensed driving, ignoring the clear risk.
In June, when Gascón charged a bicyclist with felony vehicular manslaughter for speeding through an intersection and killing Sutchi Hui, 71, a press release announced, "This incident could have been avoided and we can do better as a city to avoid these tragic consequences. In order to preserve our diverse transit community, everyone has to follow the rules of the road."
Gascón also intoned: "This tragic death caused by a bicyclist illustrates the worst-case scenario when traffic laws are not obeyed."
Gascón's office charged Galo with felony manslaughter. Good. But that happened after he announced the free pass for unlicensed drivers with licensed friends. I called his office to see if he now advocates an end to the impound-lite policy. No answer. Ditto from Mayor Ed Lee's operation.
Jessica Vaughan of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies believes ICE acted in part because the Rosenbergs pushed to see Galo face consequences for recklessly taking their son's life. How many fatal crashes have there been, Vaughan wonders, that garnered no press coverage, no outrage and no serious consequences?

License-lite in San Francisco

Nov. 1, 2009 - San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announces a policy to allow unlicensed drivers to avoid an automatic 30-day impound if a licensed driver can drive away their car. Then-Police Chief George Gascón explained the policy was designed to help those "who can't get a driver's license because of their immigration status, as well as those who could not afford driver training.
June 14, 2010 - Police stop Roberto Galo, 52, for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and driving without a license. A licensed friend was able to retrieve his Chevrolet Cavalier.
Nov. 16, 2010 - Galo hits and kills Drew Rosenberg during a rush-hour accident.
Aug. 16, 2012 - A judge sentenced Galo to six months in jail, three years' probation for misdemeanor manslaughter and driving without a license. Galo served 43 days, then was released.
Jan. 9, 2013 - ICE detained Galo. No comment from Mayor Ed Lee.