Sanctuary-city policy enables dangerous drivers

"It basically shows that the Obama administration is looking for reasons to allow people to stay here even if they have committed offenses that are dangerous to the public."
Debra J. Saunders
Updated 4:08 p.m., Friday, November 9, 2012

Drew Rosenberg became a victim of San Francisco's immigration policies on Nov. 16, 2010. The second-year law student was riding his motorcycle in rush-hour traffic when a car driven by an unlicensed driver made a left turn and hit him. That evening, Don Rosenberg of Westlake Village received the phone call every parent dreads. His precious son was dead.

Then another nightmare unfolded.

As Rosenberg investigated driver Roberto Galo's background, he discovered that San Francisco's policies regarding immigrants have served as an enabler for dangerous drivers.

Rosenberg sees his son's death as highly preventable. Five months earlier, San Francisco police stopped Galo for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and driving without a license. The city even impounded his Chevrolet - the car that later would kill Drew Rosenberg - which a friend recovered and then released to Galo.

I write "even impounded" because, while it is illegal to drive without a license, in 2009 then-Mayor Gavin Newsom implemented a policy to allow unlicensed drivers stopped by police to avoid an automatic impound of their cars if a licensed driver could drive them away. Police Chief (now District Attorney) George Gascón told The Chronicle's Phil Matier and Andrew Ross, "We recognize that this is a problem within the Hispanic community, where people working here can't get a driver's license because of their immigration status."

At the time, Gascón told me the policy should not be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card because "we're stopping them from driving." The policy, he argued, replaced unlicensed drivers with licensed drivers. And it would prevent unlicensed drivers from trying to flee the scene of an accident.

That's an important point. The district attorney's office charged Galo for driving without a license and felony negligent homicide - a felony because witnesses testified that, with his wife and kids in the car, Galo had backed over Drew Rosenberg's body.

In 2009, Gascón also told me that Newsom's policy wasn't put in place to help illegal immigrants, who are ineligible to get a license, but to help all residents who cannot afford to get a license or driver's training. The idea was to help all unlicensed drivers. A 2008 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 29 percent of fatal crashes in California from 2001 to 2005 involved unlicensed or improperly licensed drivers. So - why?

It turns out that as a legal immigrant with "temporary protected status," Galo was eligible for a California driver's license. He just never got one. After his car was impounded, he paid a $220 fine and walked away. That's chump change. The fine for driving illegally in an HOV lane is $481.

More proof the city doesn't take driving without a license seriously: A judge reduced the felony manslaughter charge to a misdemeanor. A jury found Galo guilty of manslaughter and driving without a license. His sentence: six months in jail, three years' probation.

By that time, Rosenberg told me, "my wife and I really didn't care if he was sentenced to a day. 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." In that Galo returned American hospitality with a readiness to flout American law, deportation seemed both just and in the interest of public safety.

Then came the next body blow. Rosenberg asked Rep. Henry Waxman's office to make sure Galo would be deported. Waxman aides tell me that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told them that Galo was guilty of only one crime of moral turpitude - manslaughter.

Rosenberg fears ICE is going to let Galo stay.

"It basically shows that the Obama administration is looking for reasons to allow people to stay here even if they have committed offenses that are dangerous to the public," said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tougher enforcement. In an attempt to protect illegal immigrants, the administration is "bending over backward to find ways to allow even people who've committed dangerous traffic offenses to stay here when they should be deported."

There's "no question that what happened to the Rosenberg family was tragic," Public Defender Jeff Adachi told me.

It's more than tragic. Rosenberg sees the city's policy as a green light for bad drivers. He believes Gascón has more zeal for throwing the book at offenders who deliver positive headlines and less zeal when lawbreakers are immigrants.

Gascón spokesman Alex Bastian responded, "Many drivers make bad decisions. Some are licensed and some are unlicensed. Unfortunately, in this tragic situation someone died, and as a result, we prosecuted the defendant for it. We took the case to trial and secured a verdict of guilty, and the defendant was sentenced to jail as a result."

Thing is, an unlicensed driver by definition is more culpable - and more dangerous.

"Not that I would agree that driving without a license isn't a big deal so you shouldn't get deported," Rosenberg exclaimed. "But in this case, someone killed someone - and you don't think it's a big deal?"
Road to death

Nov. 1, 2009 - San Francisco announces a policy allowing unlicensed drivers to avoid an automatic impound if a licensed driver will get their car.

June 14, 2010 - Police stop Roberto Galo, 52, for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and driving without a license. He pays a $220 fine.

Nov. 16, 2010 - Galo hits and kills Drew Rosenberg at Harrison and 16th streets.

Read more: Sanctuary-city policy enables dangerous drivers - SFGate