Calif. Police Officials Charged with Seizing Cars of Poor Latinos and Selling Them

Policing for personal profit


So will the DA's office seize their property?

King City, Calif., is a small (population: 13,169) town in Monterey County with a population that is 87 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to 2010 census figures. The town's crime rate is around or below the national average, but the police there seem to have found ways to keep themselves busy. According to the county, the highest ranking officers in King City have been targeting their poorer Latino residents, seizing their cars, and then selling them for a profit or keeping them for themselves when their owners were unable to pay to get them back. The Monterey Herald reports:

In what is likely the most widespread case of official corruption in Monterey County history, six King City police officers, including the former and acting chiefs of police, were arrested on felony charges on Tuesday, four of them accused of conspiracy, embezzlement and bribery. The owner of a local tow truck company, the brother of the acting chief, was arrested in the scheme, which involved impounding the cars of mostly unlicensed drivers, then selling them when the cars' owners were unable to pay towing and storage fees.

Prosecutor Steve Somers, who is handling the case, said he considered charging the officers with hate crimes because they targeted disadvantaged Latino residents. He concluded their actions targeted the victims because they were vulnerable, not out of racial animus.

The district attorney's office had been investigating the claims for the past six months, but they've also been tracking allegations about wrongdoing at the police department for at least four years, according to the Herald. They were first alerted to this scheme thanks to online comments posted on a video of a town hall meeting in King City where citizens expressed their frustration with the city's police department.

Here's how the towing company gamed the system to make it almost impossible for victims' to get their vehicles back:

Ana Vargas, co-chairwoman of the South County Outreach Efforts and a King City resident, said community members have complained for months in front of the City Council about Miller's Towing and the outrageous rules they had to follow to recover their cars. She said Miller's required owners of impounded cars to keep them there for 30 days, with charges accruing. By the time drivers could pick up their cars, they owed $2,000 to $3,000.

"The cars were not even worth that much," Vargas said. Unable to pay, drivers would just abandon their autos.

Two of the officers were arrested on crimes that had nothing to do with the car scheme. The six of them comprise 35 percent of King City's police force.