Local News

Wednesday, Jun 01 2011 05:07 PM

Grand jury blasts Maricopa over impounds

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    One of several banners in Maricopa protesting alleged aggressive traffic tactics used by the police department on motorists passing through the town.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Maricopa Police Chief Derek Merritt addresses what some citizens consider are too strict traffic code enforcement policies.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    This sign at the corner of Poso St. and Hwy 33 in Maricopa is one of several protesting the police department traffic citation policies.

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BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Maricopa police officers have been using aggressive traffic stops and vehicle impounds -- targeting mostly Hispanic drivers -- to bring in revenue to the city under an invalid, exclusive tow contract with Randy's Towing, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kern County Grand Jury.

The report demands that the Maricopa City Council invalidate the contract and take control of its police department.

"We're taking the report seriously and we're going to review everything that it requires of us," said interim Maricopa City Administrator Lauri Robison.

Vice Mayor Virgil Bell said the situation is reprehensible and that police were focused only on pulling over people travelling along Highway 166 and Highway 33 who they thought might have to give up their car when stopped.

"They're looking for an impound -- that's all they're after. Even if there is a licensed driver in the car, they will impound it it," said Bell, elected to the council last November. "It's pitiful. It's a shame what they've been doing to these poor immigrant workers out here."

The Grand Jury report states the contract with Randy's Towing was not signed or approved by the Maricopa City Council, as required by law.

It goes on to say that, under state law, a city's impound release fee must be based on actual administrative costs. Since most of Maricopa's officers are unpaid volunteers, the Grand Jury report stated, that fee should be fairly low. However Maricopa's fee -- at $150 -- is the highest in Kern County. And, in addition, the city gets 25 percent of the proceeds of all impound fees and sales of unclaimed vehicles under the invalid contract with Randy's Towing.

In many cases the officers pull over the "overwhelmingly Hispanic" drivers for minor vehicle code violations including cracked windshields, missing front license plates and unlighted rear license plates.

Maricopa Police Chief Derek Merritt has defended his aggressive enforcement policies in the past.

But on Wednesday his department would only release a statement saying that the Maricopa City Council will be opening up business contracts with any licensed tow company located within 10 miles of Taft.

Three tow companies will be picked to take calls for towing on a rotating basis.

Bell said an earlier draft of the Grand Jury report he obtained a copy of was "nastier" and recommended disbanding the Maricopa Police Department.

"We probably should have stayed with the Sheriff's Department all along," he said.

Robison said she has been in her job as interim city administrator for only two weeks and cannot speak to some of the specifics in the formal Grand Jury report released on Wednesday.

Bell said former City Administrator Dan Ayala resigned amid the dust-up over the contract with Randy's Towing and aggressive enforcement efforts.

"The last council meeting it (all) kinda went down," Bell said. "He resigned and it's a good thing he did."

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