SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — King City, in California’s Salinas Valley, agreed to pay $1.2 million to victims of a car-towing scam carried out by corrupt police officers who victimized poor Latinos.
Hundreds of low-income Latinos had their cars illegally towed and impounded after being pulled over for minor traffic infractions in the sleepy agricultural town of 13,900, according to the civil lawsuit and investigation by the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office.
Latinos constitute 87.5 percent of the population of King City, 150 miles southwest of San Francisco, according to 2015 U.S. Census data.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler approved the $1.2 million settlement on Jan. 25. Roughly 229 victims will be paid about $3,902 apiece.
At least eight King City officers conspired with Bruce Miller, owner of Miller’s Towing, to haul away and impound vehicles of poor Latinos from 2009 to 2014, according to lead plaintiff Jesus Garcia’s lawsuit.
Miller and police made the victims pay excessive fees to retrieve their vehicles, took cars for their personal use, and sold some for profit and pocketed the proceeds.
Plaintiff David Gutierrez was forced to pay more than $2,700 to recover his automobile.
Plaintiff Sergio Munoz was told to bring a $200 money order to the police station and to leave the payee line blank — just to find out how to get his car back. Munoz had to pay another $300 to retrieve the car from Miller’s Towing, according to court documents.
The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office investigation led to charges of conspiracy, embezzlement and bribery against six officers, including the city’s acting and former police chiefs, in 2014.
The alleged mastermind of the plot, former police Sgt. Bobby Carrillo, was the last officer to be sentenced last year after pleading no-contest to bribery and perjury. He was sentenced to a year in the county jail. He was the only officer who was sentenced to jail.
The district attorney found Carillo had impounded more than 200 cars from March 2010 to November 2013, with 87 percent of them going to Miller’s Towing.
Despite the housecleaning in the police department, class attorney Blanca Zarazua said King City needs to do more to support the vulnerable population targeted by police.
“More can be done beyond the police reforms: education, reassurance, information about resources, and just really setting up a dialogue and rapport with people in that community,” Zarazua said.
Zarazua said several victims were scared to join in the lawsuit or submit claims. Zarazua, who also serves as honorary consul of Mexico for Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, said she held numerous workshops in King City to educate victims about the lawsuit and explain that their immigration status was “of no consequence.”
“I think the result was very good under the circumstances,” Zarazua said. “I think the King City Council was very professional throughout and thanks to both sides’ professionalism, we were able to reach a positive result for the persons most impacted by this activity.”
The $1.2 million settlement includes $306,250 in plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and $16,000 in costs, plus $7,000 for costs of administering settlement payments and $2,000 incentive awards for two class representatives.
King City Mayor Mike LeBarre did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday afternoon.
King City’s median household income of $41,409 in 2015 was 36 percent below the statewide median of $64,500, and the median value of a home or condo that year, $231,233, was just 51 percent of the statewide median, according to city-data.com.