Some Dallas Drivers Cited For Not Speaking English

Since 2007, at least 20 Dallas police officers from five patrol divisions have wrongly cited motorists for not speaking English. Scott Goldstein, a reporter with The Dallas Morning News, says in at least one case a rookie officer mistakenly used a federal statute covering commercial drivers to issue a citation to a woman who made an illegal U-turn.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Dallas, an investigation has revealed that at least 20 police officers ticketed 38 drivers for not speaking English, even though that is not a crime. The cases go back three years, nearly all the ticketed drivers were Hispanic. Scott Goldstein has been writing about this for The Dallas Morning News. And Scott, how did all this come to light?

Mr. SCOTT GOLDSTEIN (Reporter, The Dallas Morning News): Well, a woman who lives here in Dallas was ticketed earlier this month for, among other things, being a non-English speaking driver. She got the charge dismissed and then came forth to the media and quickly the department did an investigation and discovered there had been dozens of other similar cases.

BLOCK: And we should note that in the case of this woman driver, she was also ticketed for an illegal u-turn and not having a license with her.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Correct. She was stopped for making that illegal u-turn and then she was cited as well for not having her license, although she does have a Texas driver's license and she was also cited for that third violation of being a non-English speaking driver.

BLOCK: Well, how is this happening? That if, that is, is not a crime to drive without speaking English, how is it happening that 38 drivers - at least, maybe more - got these tickets?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, what we know about the one case of this woman from this month is that it was a rookie officer who was still on training. And that he looked on his in-car computer and saw a possible charge listed and the description in his computer said non-English speaking driver. And what we're told in that case is that he was confused by that and thought he could use that as a law. What that referred to though was a federal statute regarding commercial drivers. So, at least in that case, and we're being told likely in some of these other cases, that may be it as well. But there are checks in place that police are telling us should have caught this. Every citation has to be signed off on by a sergeant and with this rookie from this month, he had an extra layer. He had a senior officer in the car with him, who should've been checking his work.

BLOCK: You point out in your reporting that these cases represent a really small percentage of the total number of tickets that the Dallas Police Department writes every year.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: That's right. It's important to note that they issue about four hundred thousand citations a year. It's a police force of about 3,600. So, we're talking about 38 tickets out of - over the course of three years. So, it's probably more than a million tickets. So, the percentages are not very high, but it's still been pretty alarming to members of the community - the Hispanic community has come out pretty strongly and said, you know, it's not so much the percentages that matter, it's the perception and it's the message that it sends to some people. And they want a full investigation into whether there's been any racial profiling, which at this point we don't have any indication of that, but it's still pretty early in the investigation.

BLOCK: And what's happened with the other drivers who were also charged with driving without speaking English?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The police chief came out on Friday and he apologized several times. And he promised a full investigation and any pending cases they said will be dismissed. Any cases in which the drivers had already paid the $204 fine will be reimbursed.

BLOCK: And what about this pull-down menu on the computers that you mentioned in the petrol cars? Are those going to be tweaked in some way?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, I'm being told they were already, for other reasons, going to be changing that software. So, yes, in the next couple of months that pull-down menu will no longer be in those affected patrol cars.

BLOCK: Well, Scott Goldstein, thanks for talking with us about it.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's reporter Scott Goldstein with The Dallas Morning News.

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