DMV worker fights firing

Case weighs public safety vs. perceived "profiling"

DALLAS - Last month, Dallas DMV office manager LaVay Jeffries was accused of racial profiling and fired.

He says that he was doing his job, trying to keep someone from obtaining an Oregon driving permit under false pretenses.

DMV administrator Lorna Youngs said she regards Jeffries' actions as "outside the scope of his position," saying that it is not the responsibility of DMV employees to "conduct independent criminal investigations."

On May 4, 2005 Jeffries became suspicious of a woman, Jimenez Mesa, who was attempting to get an Oregon learner's driving permit.

She spoke little English and had a man with her, presumably to translate. According to Jeffries' testimony, that is not unusual, given the large Spanish-speaking population in Polk County.

Jeffries said that he only started to suspect Mesa when the woman claimed a Beaverton address and presented a Colombian passport and visa as ID.

While that was unusual, Jeffries said he still wrote it off, figuring the woman was working in the area and wanted to take her test while on break. He set things up for the woman to take her written test, and then left the office to administer a driving test.

Upon returning, Jeffries said, he passed the man who was with Mesa. He was in the parking lot, standing beside a 2005 minivan and talking on a cell phone. Inside were two other people who Jeffries described as "hanging their heads."

As he passed the van, Jeffries asked the translator where he worked. The man said he didn't have a job.

Between the woman coming all the way from Beaverton to get a drivers license, the man's constant activity on his cell phone (He used it regularly throughout his interview with Mesa, Jeffries said), the brand-new van and the lack of employment by the driver, Jeffries' curiosity was aroused.

"I became suspicious, as this was beginning to look like someone possibly engaged in illegal activity, perhaps drugs or helping people get false Oregon ID," Jeffries wrote in an affidavit.

At this point, DMV Administrator Lorna Youngs says, Jeffries should have called his supervisor, William Halsne. Instead, Jeffries took note of the van's license plate and went inside to pull up its record.

The van belonged to a rental agency at the Portland airport. Jeffries called that agency, told them he worked for the DMV and asked who the van was rented to. He was told it was rented to a man with a North Carolina driver's license and a Beaverton address.

"I found out this information because things were not looking right and I wanted to know if there was enough reason to call police," Jeffries wrote.

Jeffries did call the Dallas Police, who said they would be interested in following up.

By then, however, Mesa had failed her test and left. The police told Jeffries that if the woman returned, to call them.

Jeffries then called DMV headquarters and asked that a red flag be placed on Mesa's record, asking her to return to Dallas to retest.

After a few days passed, Jeffries began to wonder what had happened - if Mesa had attempted to test again. He called the main DMV office and was told that Mesa had taken, and passed, a test at the North Salem DMV.

Apparently, the flag on her record went unnoticed or was ignored. Or it had been removed.

This was not the first time Jeffries has called police when he suspected customers of criminal activity. On April 27, 1999, Fereja Seifu was arrested after Jeffries called police because he suspected Seifu of trying to obtain false Oregon ID cards for Abdulah Ahmed K. Alqubaisi, Hamad Sayah Al Mazrouei and Mansour Almulla.

Seifu stood trial later that year, and he was convicted of the sale of documents for purposes of misrepresentation.

But the three Saudi nationals who'd been with him fled the country.

The incident was before Halsne took over as Jeffries' supervisor.

Then, in 2004, Jeffries caught four juveniles cheating on the written portion of their driver's tests. He called police, but the teenagers didn't know how to contact the person who had sold them their cheat sheets.

Halsne sent Jeffries a letter detailing the chain of command in non-emergency situations and informing him that he wasn't to call police again without contacting a supervisor.

"Remember that in situations like this you may not be aware of other investigative work that is going on, and may jeopardize the case by being too zealous in pursuing the issue," Halsne, wrote in a 2004 letter to Jeffries.

Jeffries said he filed that letter away and forgot about it - until it was mentioned during his predismissal meeting this year.

After the May incident, Jeffries was informed that what he had done constituted racial profiling, misrepresenting himself as a DMV employee, disregarding the chain of command and using DMV records for personal reasons.

He was subsequently terminated. His union is appealing the decision.

"He was not fired for just cause. His co-workers and his previous manager feel that this is totally ludicrous," said Cory McIntosh, statewide steward for DMV Local 735.

McIntosh said there is no clear policy that states racial profiling is a firing offense.

"I have actually pushed them in my role as (union) president to clarify their policy on this," McIntosh said.

"The DMV has zero tolerance for racial profiling," David House, the agency's public information officer, said.

He added that racial profiling can result in a reprimand, a pay cut or dismissal.

McIntosh blames Jeffries' termination on a change in management that subsequently altered the expectations and responsibilities for his job.

"The chain of command is spelled out, but what is ambiguous is the role of the office manger when there is not a site manager present. He (Jeffries) was trying to take a proactive stance to protect the people of Oregon and was terminated for it."

House disagrees.

"Depending on the size of the offices, we might share one manager among many offices and the hierarchy may vary, but there are always ways to reach a manager. And we have very, very highly refined and specific job descriptions that are reworked constantly to keep them up to date," he said.

Jeffries admits that he inadvertently broke the chain of command. He says he forgot about the letter that Halsne sent him in 2004, but he does not agree with the charges of misrepresenting himself or misusing DMV records.

"The DMV said that I did this for personal reasons. I did not. I only did what I thought was right and was part of my job to look out for the interests of the public," Jeffries said.

"I felt it was my job to take action and get the police involved if I observed suspicious activity."

The DMV's conflict of interest policy (PER 1-2-2) does state in part:

"Employees are obligated to treat their positions as a public trust, using their official powers and duties and the resources of ODOT only to advance the public interest."

However, according to Youngs, this doesn't extend to the actions Jeffries took on May 4.

"You told Mr. Halsne that your actions were based on the fact you believed the man was a drug dealer out of Columbia because he was Hispanic, had other Hispanics with him. That he was dressed nicely, did not have a job, and was talking on a cell phone," Young wrote in Jeffries' dismissal letter.

"DMV employees are not the police. Your actions appeared to be prejudicial; this was a serious issue, and the stop was removed from the customer's record."

Jeffries denies these allegations, stating that he has always had a respectful and polite relationship with the Latino community in Polk County, going so far as to take Spanish classes to better serve his customers.

The debate seems to come down to what the DMV's role should be in the post-September 11 investigative hierarchy.

"I do believe that the DMV has an obligation to the people of the State of Oregon to make sure to the best of their ability that the people getting licenses and IDs are providing authentic documentation," McIntosh said.

The DMV doesn't believe that. They believe it is a law enforcement issue.

"I think that is their right, but I, as a union leader, feel that they are not doing an adequate job communicating their stance to their employees," he said.


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