Driving while brown
When Nubia Escobedo drove down to her father's Woodburn grocery store, she forgot to take her driver's license. You can't blame the 18-year-old for being a bit distracted.
Her grandmother had fallen ill and her father, Ezequiel Escobedo Lopez, had just rushed back to Mexico to be at her bedside, leaving the family to run the tienda, which Lopez bought in 2011 to serve one of Oregon's largest concentrations of Latino residents.
Escobedo agreed to cover a Thursday evening shift, and it was late when she climbed into her boyfriend's Chevy Tahoe to drive back to Hillsboro. "My sister knew that I didn't have an ID, so she was following right behind me, just in case," she recalled.
As the cars headed north on Highway 99E, Escobedo saw flashing lights in her rear-view mirror. An officer from the Hubbard Police Department told Escobedo he was stopping her because she'd veered out of her lane. "He was asking me for my ID right away," she said.
Escobedo was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a police car, where she promptly began to sob. "I was really scared," she said. "I thought I was going to go to jail."
Because she had a valid driver's license on file, Escobedo ultimately was allowed to leave with her sister. She was not charged with failing to stay in her lane, but was given a $435 ticket for violating ORS 807.570, "failure to carry or present license."
It's a violation levied against Latino drivers in Oregon at a rate more than eight times that of whites, according to an analysis of state court records.
Debate over disparities
Some authorities say that disparity simply reflects the fact that undocumented residents, who are overwhelmingly Latino in Oregon, can no longer get a driver's license here.
But Nubia Escobedo — like 80 percent of Latino Oregonians — is here legally. And researchers who reviewed our data say that even when controlling for the estimated impact of undocumented immigration, Latino residents like her are charged with the most common offense — driving without a license — at more than twice the rate of whites.
Based on the estimated 400,000 Latino residents living in Oregon legally in 2015, you could expect about 485 to be ticketed in state courts for driving without a license. Instead there were 1,199.
What's most striking to analysts who reviewed the data is that the disparity is seen every year we studied, from 2005 through 2015. That pattern, they say, makes it highly unlikely that the disparity is entirely due to the immigration status of drivers.
"In statistics you never say it's impossible," said Mark Harmon, a criminologist at Portland State University who reviewed our data and, specifically, the chance that the disparity for this charge was due solely to the immigration status of drivers.
"In this case, the probability (is) like 1 in trillions," he said. "It's so much smaller than being struck by lightning. You're probably 5,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than this happening 11 years in a row," he said.
What's more, our review of court data, the first of its kind in Oregon, shows Latinos were more likely than white residents to be charged with driving without a license even before proof of legal status was required to get a license.
In a five-year period (2002-06) prior to the state's license restriction, Hispanics were charged at a rate two or more times that of whites in 16 counties. In a recent five-year period (2011-15) that number didn't change.
And Latino residents are charged at higher rates with other driving offenses, too, including obstruction of vehicle windows, broken lights and failure to use lights, improper lane change, crossing the median, failing to drive on the right.
Many people we interviewed were troubled by our findings. State Rep. Sal Esquivel isn't one of them.
"Maybe they drive different in Mexico," said Esquivel, a Republican from Medford, whose father came to Southern Oregon from Mexico as a guest worker in 1945 and later became a U.S. citizen. "If they break the law, they break the law. That's the end of the discussion as far as I'm concerned."
Latino drivers statistically drink and drive at a higher rate than white drivers, and they're less likely to wear seatbelts, according to research by the federal Department of Transportation. But there's no proof that Latino residents are more likely to drive without lights, change lanes improperly or tint their windows.
So, why are Latino drivers racking up all these violations?
Many Latino residents, and lawyers who work with them, say it gets back to the driver's license issue. Police, they say, target Latino drivers, pulling them over for minor violations so they can check for a valid license. Even some within law enforcement say that Latino drivers in Oregon are pulled over for what's known as "driving while brown."
Retired Hillsboro Police Chief Ron Louie said he had to rein in a few officers who targeted Latino drivers. And a longtime multicultural liaison for the Springfield Police Department said she fielded complaints of profiling. She said department administration confirmed those allegations in a closed-door meeting. (The department declined to comment citing a pending lawsuit.)
It may seem like good police work to pull over someone you know has a high probability of committing a crime. And, if 20 percent of Latino residents are here without documentation, that might appear like good odds. So, why not wait for Latino drivers to commit minor traffic infractions and then pull them over and ask for their license?
Because it's illegal.
'We all have bias'
Longstanding state and federal laws banning discriminatory practices based on race have always applied to police. But a 2015 state statute explicitly bars any law enforcement officer in Oregon from "targeting" an individual "for suspicion of violating a provision of law based solely on the real or perceived factor of the individual's age, race, ethnicity, color, national origin, language ..." unless that officer is looking for a suspect matching those characteristics.
That means police cannot target someone for enforcement of a crime only because they appear to be a member or a racial or ethnic group, says Gilbert Carrasco, a former civil rights litigator for the federal Department of Justice who now teaches at Willamette University College of Law.
If enforcement is color-blind, members of any racial or ethnic group would be charged with most crimes at a rate that roughly matches their presence in the population.
And yet, our analysis of Oregon court records shows that Latinos are disproportionately charged with about a dozen crimes and violations, more than half of which are related to driving offenses.
Racial profiling is a hard allegation to prove in Oregon because the state doesn't require agencies to collect information about who they stop.
Rep. Esquivel doesn't think officers target people who appear to be Latino. "That's a liberal argument. That's something someone has made up," he said. "If they're guilty, they should be charged. And if there's more of them charged, so be it."
Hubbard Police Chief Bill Gill reflects on two decades of police work with both unwavering faith in his officers and unequivocal knowledge that they make mistakes.
"We are all human, and we all have bias," he said. "On a daily basis, I evaluate how I'm doing my job and try to be honest with myself."
Gill is adamant that the officer who stopped young Nubia Escobedo late one night in March 2015 didn't do so because she was Latina. That doesn't make him feel any better about a terrified 18-year-old who felt victimized by police.
"I'm not blind to the fact why people are so quick to feel that they're victimized. Whether it was things that have happened to them, something they've heard, clearly there's something going on here," he said. It is "something we all have to be willing to work on, and be honest about."
Kate Willson is an independent journalist. She lives in Portland.
Driving restrictions force Latino residents to improvise and pray
At his Hillsboro bazaar, M&M Marketplace, Jaime Miranda saw business cut in half with the implementation of a 2008 state law requiring applicants to prove they are in the country legally to get a license. Some customers didn't want to drive, and shops shuttered.
For Ezequiel Escobedo, who runs a Woodburn grocery, it meant launching a delivery service for Latino clients who don't have a license.
For Delfina, a mother of two in Hillsboro, the 2008 law means not driving to the river during summer vacation, even on the hottest of days. "We never leave. Only when we have to for work," she said. "We don't want to get pulled over."
Miranda says it's hard to watch community members limit activities and opportunities that require driving.
"It's tough," he said. "I feel myself a true Oregonian. Hillsboro is my hometown. But all those things that might not affect the general community, it affects me. It affects my family. It affects my friends."
For Sergio, an 18-year resident who raised his kids in Washington County, it meant changing his legal address to one in Vancouver, Washington, so he could have a legal license to continue his construction work. (Washington is one of five states that do not require applicants to prove they are in the country legally to get a license.)
For Juan, a landscaper in Eugene, it means hiring someone else to drive his truck until his son, a U.S. citizen, turns 16 and can get a license of his own.
For Maria, a waitress in Woodburn, it means paying one of the city's legally licensed Latino drivers for an informal taxi ride.
Other people drive illegally. And they get caught.
Mariana left Mexico at 17. She married a Mexican man, who, like her, entered the country illegally. They raised three kids and sent them to Salem schools, and work in the fields and vineyards of rural Marion County; too far to walk and inaccessible by public transportation. They carpool with a legal driver when they can, but it cuts into their pay.
And so, sometimes they drive their kids to school when the weather is bad, or to the doctor. Necessities, they say, not frivolities. They maintain car insurance because something is better than nothing if they get stopped by police. (Insurance agencies can go years without re-verifying that an insured driver has a valid license, so those with expired licenses can continue to have coverage.)
"Every time we get in the car we make it a habit to cross ourselves," Mariana said, adding that she's told her kids about the situation. "I explain that, 'We're going to get on the road and your mom doesn't have a license, and we pray that God will protect us. Because if police stop us, they could give me a ticket, or who knows.'"
A 1987 state law prohibits local police from enforcing federal immigration law. They can't ask about a person's immigration status or collaborate with federal Customs and Immigration Enforcement. In theory, that means a simple traffic violation in Oregon should not trigger any contact with federal immigration authorities. But many Latino Oregonians and immigration lawyers say the law does not provide as much protection as many believe it does.
Mariana's son, who is 10, promises that when he grows up he'll buy a car and drive her anywhere she wants to go, and she won't have to be afraid of being stopped by police, as she was last summer.
Mariana, 34, was alone in the car on a Monday afternoon in early July when she came to an intersection behind a strip mall in east Salem, just as a patrol car approached on the through street. "The other street didn't have a stop sign. A patrol car came. He didn't have to stop," she said. "So I stopped, what I thought was a normal stop. I noticed he didn't go. And my nerves started. I thought, 'He's looking at me. He's going to stop me.'"
The officer wouldn't continue through the intersection, Mariana said, so she continued. "He followed me and stopped me," she said.
Mariana said the officer told her that her tires crossed the white line delineating the stop. He gave her a warning for her faulty stop and a $260 ticket for driving without a license.
Salem Police spokesman Lt. Dave Okada said it's hard to know what happened during a minor traffic stop seven months in the past, especially when someone doesn't raise concerns.
Salem doesn't collect demographics of people officers stop that might lend credence to Mariana's suspicions that police target her and other Latino drivers. But Okada said they are willing to listen to concerns, explain procedures and take formal complaints.
Mariana feared contesting the ticket might somehow lead to deportation. So she pleaded guilty, and began making payments on the $260 fine.
"For me it was unjust," she said. "He stopped me because he wanted to. Not because I did something wrong."
CORRECTION Feb. 27, 2017: This story mischaracterized the proof needed to obtain a driver's license. Applicants need to show they are in the country legally to obtain a license.