Criminal justice activist Reuben Jones has filed a complaint against a Philadelphia police officer who he says abandoned him and his two children on the side of the road after impounding his car. This is an alleged violation of departmental policy — and PPD has opened an internal investigation.
It’s also a recurring grievance against city police. Jones’ account renews questions about the department’s Live Stop program. Never heard of it? Most Philadelphians rarely do — until it happens to them.
In general, Live Stop allows law enforcement to seize vehicles for certain violations, like driving with a suspended license or expired registration. But few places use the practice as aggressively as Philadelphia, where police and parking officials have impounded more than half a million vehicles since 2002.
Last Monday around 7 p.m., after celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with family, Jones was driving his two children home in South Philly when a police cruiser signalled him to pull over. The officer claimed Jones had rolled through a stop sign — a claim Jones denies — but that was soon the least of Jones’ worries.
His vehicle registration was expired, an impoundable offense thanks to Live Stop.
Jones, the executive director at youth-mentorship nonprofit Frontline Dads, admitted he forgot to renew his vehicle paperwork that had expired two months prior. He then pleaded with the officer not to impound the car. The outside temperature was so low it had triggered the city’s Code Blue policy, he noted, and motioned to his 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter in the back seat. But the officer said he had “no discretion” in the matter, according to Jones.
“I was being as humble as I could, I appealed to his humanity,” Jones told Billy Penn. “I even started to renew my registration on my phone, but he didn’t care.”
Jones wasn’t aware of it at the time, but under city policy, the officer should have offered him a ride to ensure his and his family’s safety. Philadelphia has been sued over similar roadside abandonments in the past.
By the department’s own rules, officers aren’t allowed to leave drivers on the side of the road without alternatives. To ensure safety, police are obligated to offer either a ride home (if you live within reasonable distance), a lift to a the nearest police precinct to make arrangements, or a ride to the nearest public transit hub.
That didn’t happen in this case, Jones alleges. Left miles from their Northwest Philadelphia home, Jones said he had to walk his two children several blocks to a nearby McDonald’s until they could wait for Jones’ wife to pick them up. “They were shivering,” he said. “It was humiliating.”
On Friday, the Philadelphia Police Department confirmed an internal investigation had been opened into Jones’ complaint against the officer.
“We take matters such as this quite seriously,” said PPD Capt. Sekou Kinebrew. “We will defer further comment until additional facts have been gathered.”
A Kenney campaign issue from 2015
Jones is hardly the first Philadelphian to get his car impounded, much less to allege he was abandoned by the police on the side of the road. Numerous incidents have garnered headlines since the program’s expansion in 2002. The most prominent examples involve white residents who found themselves put out on foot over a registration snafu.
Class action attorney Stephen Sheller sued the police department in 2011 after officers abandoned his daughter and her fianceé in West Philly. He called the Live Stop program unconstitutional.
“You know, I’d expect this kind of behavior in Damascus, Tripoli, or Teheran, but not in Philadelphia,” Sheller said at the time.
But for people of color, some suggest there’s less of a shock.
A 2016 Temple University report conducted by law students in conjunction with New Sanctuary Movement argued that undocumented immigrants who can’t obtain state driver’s licenses are disproportionately impacted by the policy. State law does not actually require a tow when drivers are operating vehicles without a license or registration. But Philly’s iteration of Live Stop calls for it anyway, even as peer cities have shunned the practice for other options.
It’s difficult to parse which violations result in tows under the program. PPA spokesman Marty O’Rourke said the agency doesn’t keep track of vehicles impounded specifically for expired registrations — only for the Live Stop program as a whole.
Such tows have declined since their peak in 2006, when 44,000 vehicles were impounded citywide. Now around a third that many vehicles are impounded each year — nearly 15,000 in 2016 — but data on whether officers followed policy and offered transport is still not readily available.
Mayor Jim Kenney made a stir about Live Stop during the 2015 mayoral race, after an undocumented woman was stranded after her vehicle was seized en route to one of his campaign events. Kenney called the abandonment an abuse of the program, but since taking office, his administration has not pursued any substantive changes to the policy.
“Like PPD itself, the mayor takes matters like this quite seriously, and the report is concerning. Because the incident is still under investigation, it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the specifics,” said Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn.
Dunn noted the policy states that such stops “‘must be carried out in a reasonable and equitable manner’ — that is the very first point of the policy because it is the most important.”
A day in court plus $500 in fines
In the poorest big city in the U.S., Jones’ run-in with Live Stop also led him to wonder how many lives have been financially derailed by the practice — all for letting their vehicle registration lapse.
After the incident on Jan. 21, Jones said he spent half the day in Philadelphia Traffic Court to pay back the fines. His sister then gave him a ride down to the PPA yard on Essington Avenue to retrieve his vehicle. All told, it was a $500 ordeal, he said.
“I had a $150 ticket. The tow was $243. I had to pay $100 to a judge for court fees,” he calculated. “It’s very expensive and it’s demeaning — some people end up losing their cars because it’s so expensive to store the car.”
PPA charges up to $30 per day for vehicle storage, and if you don’t retrieve your vehicle within 30 days, it heads to the auction. With the help of the PPA, Philly Police send hundreds of impounded vehicles to the chopping block each year.
Between the fees and outstanding tickets in Traffic Court, drivers routinely pay anywhere between $500 to $1,000 to get their car back.
Pointing to the outsize financial burden, advocates have called Live Stop another example of a government cash cow that preys on city residents.
Rebecca Hoffmann, an attorney in Philadelphia who researched the Live Stop program’s impact while at Temple, said she could find no compelling explanation as to why the program still exists in its current form.
“It’s been decades now, and you’d think this wouldn’t be going anymore,” Hoffmann told Billy Penn. “Even for middle-class people, this is destabilizing.”