A community group filed a lawsuit on Sept. 1 against the city of Pomona and their police department, stemming from an incident at a meeting concerning sobriety checkpoints last year. The lawsuit alleges that off-duty police disrupted the meeting that was held in a church by the group, the Pomona Habla/Pomona Speaks Coalition.
Between 10 and 20 officers attended the meeting wearing civilian clothes. A few of the armed off-duty officers became disruptive, drowning out speakers with yells in support of the checkpoints, and two of the officers allegedly threatened two Pomona Habla members at the meeting with violence.
José Caldern, professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer, attended the meeting in an ongoing effort, that has included students, to protest the use of checkpoints.
The controversy started when the city of Pomona set up checkpoints last year to catch drivers under the influence of alcohol. Instead of setting them up at night, policemen began pulling drivers over at 4 p.m., when many were heading home from work or picking up their children from school. Those without driver’s licenses had their cars impounded.
On May 3, police set up a four-way checkpoint on San Antonio Avenue and Mission Boulevard. According to attorney Luis Carrillo, more than 100 cars were impounded that night, and only three people were arrested for driving under the influence.Undocumented immigrants cannot legally receive driver’s licenses inCalifornia, so all cars of undocumented immigrants and unlicensed drivers were impounded, and the owners paid to retrieve them from the storage yards.
Carrillo said the four-way checkpoint was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Pomona is a community with a large number of undocumented immigrants, leading many to believe the checkpoints were motivated by a racist and classist impetus. Residents of the city held the meeting to voice their grievances.
Students and professors at the Claremont Colleges have also been involved in protesting the checkpoints. In addition to Caldern, who was present at the August 2008 meeting, Paul Waters-Smith PI ’10 has also been involved in protests against checkpoint organizers.
Waters-Smith was riding his bicycle with a friend one night when he saw the checkpoints. They made signs to warn drivers of the upcoming checkpoints despite police claims that their actions were illegal. Waters-Smith later organized a group of students who returned to protest the checkpoints 15 to 20 times throughout the year with signs and megaphones. They also brought food to people whose cars were being confiscated.
“It’s not a protest action so much as an action to make checkpoints less effective,” Waters-Smith said. “The kind of activism that goes on [at the Claremont Colleges] is hollow, but this type of local engagement is not.”
The lawsuit claims the meeting’s attendees’ freedoms of speech, assembly and religion were violated. It also alleges that the plainclothes officers were on duty because they laughed and fraternized with uniformed officers who were called to the scene. The uniformed officers also refused to arrest an officer who made threats.
“The police officers went there with the purpose of intimidating and spying on the residents, disrupting the meeting, and disrupting working folks,” Carrillo said. “That’s the heart of the matter: that police in a heavy-handed manner intimidated and frightened residents, and interfered with their FirstAmendment rights to meet, to speak and to assemble for redress of their grievances.”
On Sept. 1, the state-issued grant used to fund the checkpoints was not renewed. The city refused to comment on the pending litigation, according to Mark Gluba, assistant to the city manager.
“I know the city will argue the police officers had a First Amendment right to be there,” Carrillo said. “But that’s a perversion of the First Amendment because the officers were not in support of the goals and objectives of the participants of that meeting.”
Carrillo said the police had something to gain personally from the checkpoints.
“For the police to want to confiscate so many cars, someone must be benefiting financially,” he said. “There is something I haven’t discovered yet because the case just started, but there’s financial incentive somewhere.”
James Sanbrano, the attorney for Pomona Habla, agreed and said officers in the traffic division earn an extra $20,000 to $30,000 a year from the overtime hours they spend at checkpoints.
Video provided of the meeting by supporters of the protest can be seen