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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer. There's nothing graphic in this article, but it does reflect on the circumstances of his death as they relate to transportation policy in order to pursue ways to not have others meet the same fate. Talking about the death of someone we love is really hard, and for many people I imagine simply moving on and remembering Mark for the tremendous amount of life he brought will be more emotionally productive. I respect that, and so if you're that type of person, consider reading something else. I feel like because Mark died the way he did, and especially because he was such an intensely political person, that this is a good way for me to cope with my feelings as I move on from the experience.

I hope that what I write here brings greater meaning to the senseless death of a very good person. It's undertaken with that in mind.

When I came out of the memorial to Mark Baumer on Saturday, I combed through things I had from that friendship. Most of the conversations I had with Mark over the years were in person, standing in the aisle of some grocery store or on the street, or at a library or some other public place. But I did have a few physical remnants of email or Twitter conversations. I had this urge to sort through them, to try to find some piece of the friend I lost. One conversation I came across stood out in particular.

About two years ago, Mark Baumer sent me an article about the actions of a "vigilante" bicyclist who took photos of aggressive drivers and sent their license plate information to the police. Mark added the comment, "I like everything about this except the part about giving it to the police." That email conversation with Mark led me to write this post about honing the balance between driver accountability and avoiding an amping up of the police state. Mark's conscience shines through beyond the article itself, because when I sent him the post he replied with an elaborate proposal to find driver information from license plates and go to have conversations with the drivers about what their actions meant to people around them. In typical Mark fashion he managed to be extremely ambitious and idealistic without a hint of arrogance, saying that he like my post and adding that he "was hesitant to add the part about the police." 

"Is there a way to find out who someone is if you have their license plate?" Mark wanted to know. "I wonder what happens if you tried having a conversation with people later about it. I imagine people would probably get pretty defensive and lash out."

That Mark was thinking so deeply about the complex nature of bad driving, and of the humanity of people who do ordinary, everyday, banally evil things, was just like Mark. Reading this as I came out of his memorial made me feel like I had a duty to do some thinking about the person(s) who killed Mark.

Car & Driver

Sonja Ziglar killed Mark Baumer when she lost
control of her vehicle on Highway 10 (U.S. 90)
in Crestville, Florida. She was a habitual violator
of driving with a suspended license.
Journalism on pedestrian deaths often ascribes a kind of passive-voice responsibility to the car "losing control" or "leaving the road" as if the machine itself does the killing rather than the person behind its wheel. When we move beyond blaming the SUV that killed Mark, we get to the driver, whose name was Sonja Moore Ziglar.

Ziglar* who-- unusually for pedestrian deaths-- faces charges for her irresponsible driving, has arrest records that show she had previously driven on a suspended license. The charge refers to her as a "habitual offender". On the day Ziglar killed Mark, whatever other illegal behavior she might have exhibited-- texting, speeding, and so on-- might remain a mystery. The source of her charges, and the reason she does not join the endless chain of drivers who have killed and faced no legal ramifications, is for the fact that she was driving without proper authorization.

Equity & Impounding Vehicles
California Democrat Jerry Brown, whose administration has taken
strong liberal stances on issues like climate change and immigrant
rights, signed a bill blocking impoundments of most vehicles,
citing concerns over immigrant rights.
Why is it so easy for drivers with suspended licenses to hold onto their vehicles? If driving is
not a legal activity for these drivers, wouldn't removing the tool with which they drive be a sensible way to avoid potential harm if they decide to break the law again? Especially for repeat offenders like Ziglar, this question rings out, and led me to search for comparative data on how vehicle impoundments work around the country.

As with many legal issues in the United States, the equity issues that plague our country complicate the issue of impounding vehicles, perhaps getting in the way of a consensus on the issue.

Immigration status is a big issue that thwarts that consensus. In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed a 2012 law allowing license-less drivers to keep their cars if they were stopped for reasons other than DUI. According to The Los Angeles Times, "Some Latino lawmakers have alleged that sobriety checkpoints have been misused by some cities to unfairly target illegal immigrants who do not have a driver’s license. Because cities can hold cars taken from unlicensed drivers for 30 days, the accumulated impound fees can turn out to be more than the car is worth, resulting in some drivers losing their cars". One can understand this concern. Rather than fix the root of the issue, which is laws disallowing undocumented immigrants from having drivers' licenses, the California law made it so that drivers facing serious moving violations like speeding or texting while driving would be let to keep their cars, even as it resolved some of the issues that resulted from racial/national-origin profiling.

Wisconsin Republican Joe Sanfelippo, whose office
spoke with Transport Providence, supports stronger 
vehicle impounding laws and would be "open" to 
non-citizen licenses in his state, which voted for 
Donald Trump.
Wisconsin, too, had prominent news stories appearing about the conflict between those who wanted to grant the state the ability to impound cars to protect the public, and those who felt that doing so posed an equity issue. A television news interview with a Republican state representative, Joe Sanfelippo, placed the context mostly in terms of income. The vast majority of the 114,000 or so stops that Wisconsin officials made for non-licensed drivers resulted from drivers who had not paid traffic tickets, while only a much smaller portion were for DUIs. Again, my own perspective on this is that someone who speeds or texts while driving should be as liable to lose their car if they don't pay the appropriate tickets as someone who has a DUI violation, and that was the perspective expressed by Republican Sanfelippo. But some probing around on Wisconsin's DMV website reminded me that moving violations in some states can also include things like driving without a seatbelt. If a consensus around impounding vehicles is to be found, exempting issues that don't affect the safety of others might be an necessary step. It's hard to feel fair about taking someone's car away because they didn't pay a seatbelt ticket.

The Wisconsin television station did not focus on immigration status as the California coverage had, but I wondered what role that might have, especially after coming across another article on an independent news blog raising the disparity. From my perspective, it's both maddening that someone cannot drive simply because of their immigration status-- especially because getting a drivers' license essentially documents the person receiving the license-- while allowing drivers who have endangered others to continue having access to their cars.

In a racist political mailer, Speaker Nicolas Mattiello of Rhode Island attacked his Republican opponent Steven Frias for 
not being explicitly anti-immigrant. Mattiello barely won reelection, but has continued his push to block immigrants without documents from getting drivers' licenses. What would Mark Baumer do about this if he was alive?

To find out what role this might have, I contacted Representative Sanfelippo's office myself. The office cordially responded, but at first offered nothing related to immigration status. When I pressed the office in another email, a staffer for the office, Joshua Heisington, replied to say "Rep. Sanfelippo was the co-author of 2015 WI Act 374, which sets uniform guidelines for local governments to issue municipal ID’s, which can include issuance to non-citizens. I’ve listed more information below. I believe Rep. Sanfelippo sees a conflict with individuals who break the law on Wisconsin roadways and put the lives of law abiding citizens at risk. Considering the issue listed above, I believe Rep. Sanfelippo would be open to having a discussion on non-citizen driver licenses, and he has discussed such a proposal with Rep. Zamarripa in the past. However, Rep. Sanfelippo did not support her proposal as it was written at that time." The email went on to include a Sanfelippo press release on immigrant IDs which was critical of the IDs. Nonetheless, the key words saying that Sanfelippo-- a Republican in a Trump state-- is open to drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants should shame Rhode Island Democrats like State Speaker Nicolas Mattiello, who campaigned on a platform of preventing immigrants from having licenses. I believe after my research that one of the reasons my friend Mark is dead is because denying licenses to undocumented immigrants creates disrespect for the law, which then blocks a consensus to protect the safety of people on roads through impoundment of vehicles owned by irresponsible drivers.

Not many states offer impoundment as a tool in the toolbox for keeping people safe from irresponsible drivers. Florida, the state where Mark was killed, did offer that tool, but only for DUI drivers. A first-time DUI offense allows the state to impound a vehicle for just 10 days. A second is up to 30 days. A third (!) DUI offense allows the state to impound a vehicle up to 90 days. Each of these also has statutes of limitations separating offenses from one another. For instance, a third offense must be within ten years of the last one in order to get the 90 day penalty. The CDC keeps records on states that do and do not have impoundment as an option for dealing with bad drivers, and many do not even have these options. Rhode Island is one of the states that does not impound vehicles, even for DUI offenses, according to the CDC chart.

When I consider the actions of Sonja Ziglar, I'm brought to think of Mark's own words from his email nearly two years ago. What understanding does a person like Ziglar have of her actions? How would she react if someone like me (or Mark) had tried to talk to her about the effect of her irresponsibility? How would Mark feel about prisons and policing in the context of a person like Ziglar, who now, after many chances, has taken a life? I don't know how to react to the personal character of someone like Ziglar. I'm drained of anger, and my urge is to just want to understand more. But what does leave me shaking with anger is the notion that our society is more okay with locking up a person who has been given the rope to hang themselves than taking that rope away. What can we do to address the inequalities Mark cared about-- things like immigrant rights? How is our racism preventing us from being able to keep people safe?

I miss Mark. I think he would want an answer.

Part 2: The Road to Perdition is Wide

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