Police in tiny Atherton, where fewer than 4 percent of residents were Latino as of 2010, issue a disproportionate number of citations to Latinos driving without a license, according to data compiled by San Mateo County resident Kent Brewster.
Over the past six months, Atherton police issued 182 citations for driving without a license. More than 96 percent of them went to suspects with Latino names. And more than 100 of these 175 drivers were cited for misdemeanors carrying a possible six-month jail sentence as opposed to the less-severe infraction notices that they could have received, Brewster wrote on his website.
Brewster said he compiled his analysis entirely based on data from the department's police blotter, which is well-known for its often-humorous chronicles of life in one of the country's most affluent towns.
Atherton police don't dispute Brewster's analysis, but they reject the suggestion that the statistics constitute evidence of racial profiling.
"We absolutely do not," Lt. Joe Wade said. "We don't know who it is before we stop them, and we have to have probable cause."
Wade said officers serving in Atherton receive special training — in addition to what's already taught at the police academy — to avoid racial bias and profiling. All new officers are given a five-hour course, which is refreshed for two hours every three years.
Latino drivers might be expected to drive without a license at a higher rate than their non-Latino peers because undocumented workers are unable to obtain California driver's licenses. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Sharon Rummery noted that a single misdemeanor charge would not harm an undocumented immigrant's chances to obtain citizenship.
Such arrests definitely have other consequences, however. Of the 182 citations, 64 vehicles were left at the scene, and the police impounded 31 of those, Brewster's report said. A vehicle impounded for such an offense carries a hefty cash penalty — about $1,800 after bail, storage, and tow fees are added up, the report said.
And suspects who are cited for a misdemeanor — versus the other option officers have for driving without a license, a less serious infraction — must report to the County Jail for booking, which includes a mugshot and fingerprinting. That booking data is then uploaded to a California Department of Justice database, and accessible by other departments in the state.
Once a person is in the system, it's difficult, if not impossible, to get out, said Dale Carson, a former police officer and FBI agent.
"Even if you're found not guilty, you're never taken out," he said.
Douglas Rappaport, a criminal defense attorney who is familiar with such cases, said racial profiling is a common but unofficial tactic.
"Racial profiling is indicative of law enforcement everywhere," Rappaport said. "They don't have a racial profiling memorandum. It's just a matter of practicality."
While he didn't defend the practice, Rappaport called it practical because small police departments such as Atherton's like to keep track of people that they don't know traveling around the community, especially those who may commit offenses.
Wade said his department will look into the report's claim, but added that the numbers aren't especially troubling. That's because the citations in question accounted for a small number of the 2,317 citations issued during that time frame, he said.
Moreover, Wade said, his department received a similar complaint about racial profiling a year ago. The department investigated the claim, he said, and it turned out not to have merit.