Is arrest the norm for drivers caught without licenses?

Arrest policy for unlicensed driver questioned

(WVUE) - The illegal immigrant accused of plowing into a fire truck while driving a party bus with dozens of passengers in St. John Parish this week, killing three people and injuring dozens, had been cited many times before for driving without a license. FOX 8 News delved into what the policies are for some local law enforcement agencies.

Denis Yasmir Amaya Rodriguez, 37, remains locked up in the St. John Parish jail.  Authorities said he is in the U.S. illegally, and was driving without a driver's license.

He is not a newcomer to the country. He was cited five times for driving without a license, starting in 2012, and each time he pleaded guilty.

That fact ignited a firestorm of public outrage and questions about why someone like Rodriguez could continue - and not be deported.

"We have no authority to deport illegal aliens,  that's a federal obligation," said Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, while speaking about the current public dialogue over illegal immigration.

FOX 8 News reached out to his department and others for information on how drivers pulled over without a license are typically handed.

"It is the law, you are supposed to have a driver's license, you're supposed to have the license on your person," said New Orleans Police Supt. Michael Harrison.

Still, most law enforcement agencies who responded said officers have leeway on whether to arrest a driver caught without a license.

"It's up to the discretion of the officer like any other misdemeanor," said Normand.

"We have a lot of tools to be able to verify the information the citizens give us. What we're concerned about are revoked licenses, or suspended licenses. We'll make a physical arrest on that," Harrison said.

Harrison said discretion was not always the norm.

"There used to be a policy where we would mandate a physical arrest," he said.

Normand stressed that officers cannot compel drivers to answer questions.

"You are obligated to provide proof of insurance, your driver's license and the registration for your vehicle and that's it. And you're not compelled to answer any other questions," he said.

"So let's say we have the guy that's violated, he's speeding, he's doing 10 miles over the speed limit, he's illegal," Normand said. "I know that immigration is not going to deport this guy, he's got no record, he's not a documented gang member, there's no information on this guy relative to him being a terrorist or anything else. We're going to go hold him in our jail, waiting a see whether or not he's going to be deported?"

The feds are operating with certain criteria for deporting those who sneak into the country.

"If an alien, illegal alien is not a documented gang member, guilty of a crime of violence, or involved in some terrorist activity, the likelihood of that individual being detained and deported by immigration officials is not very likely," Normand said.

"When someone is stopped in St. Tammany Parish, and they do not have a valid driver's license, our deputies issue a citation to the driver. The driver is not allowed to drive away, and has to have someone pick him/her up from the scene. Arrests are not typically made for a Title 32 traffic infraction due to it being a drain on the jail and judicial system. Some exceptions to this would be someone who knowingly commits the same infraction, such as driving without a driver's license," said Capt. Daniel Seuzeneau, public information officer for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office.

St. Bernard Parish has a similar policy, outlined in the following statement:

"An officer has discretion whether to arrest someone if they are driving without a driver's license.

"With the Sheriff's Office, a person receives just a citation if they are stopped for a traffic violation that doesn't involve anything more serious. However, they aren't allowed to drive the vehicle away. If it can't be left on property off the roadway and no arrangements can be made for someone to come get the vehicle it would be impounded because a vehicle can't be left on a roadway.

"But drivers are arrested if their licenses had been suspended, for example, for a violation such as a DWI conviction."

Arresting everyone behind the wheel without a driver's license could have an impact on jail overcrowding in many communities.

"We typically give misdemeanor summonses because we've been in jail overcrowding conditions and we haven't jailed misdemeanors since the 1970s," said Normand.

State Police spokeswoman Melissa Matey said every situation is different, but their policy also gives troopers discretion on whether to arrest a driver without a license.

And many departments do not inquire about a person's legal status during a stop.

"By our policy we're not asking questions about immigration status when we come in contact with citizens either by self-generated police work or call-for-service police work," Harrison said.

Normand said once someone is booked into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, their legal status is reviewed.

"People that are booked into our facility we coordinate with Immigration every day and share our information with them, and they actually look at all of our folks that we book through the facility all the time," he said.

He said a lot of loopholes remain.

"We spend a lot of time talking about sanctuary cities, we have a sanctuary border….We need to start worrying about what's happening at the border before we start, what's happening here, because what we do is of no moment because they're not going to get deported anyway. It all sounds good on a news sound-bite," Normand said.

Rodriguez faces negligent homicide, among other charges.

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