KMGH 7News “investigation” made baseless claims about unlicensed, uninsured, “illegal” immigrant drivers

In an “investigation,” KMGH 7News baselessly suggested that "[i]llegal immigrants ... driving without a valid license" or auto insurance were a widespread problem in Denver. The report did not provide any statistical evidence for its claims, relying solely on anecdotal accounts.

A KMGH 7News “investigation” broadcast on the February 6 edition of 7News at 10 p.m. asserted without substantiation that "[i]llegal immigrants caught behind the wheel driving without a valid license ... [or] insurance" are a widespread problem in Denver. In fact, the report presented only anecdotal evidence of four Hispanic men who pleaded guilty to driving without a valid driver's license and without adequate auto insurance, and presented no factual evidence that any of those offenders actually were illegal immigrants. The report also failed to cite either any statistical evidence quantifying the percentage of unlicensed, uninsured Colorado drivers who are believed to be illegal immigrants, or the overall percentage of all Colorado drivers -- citizen or immigrant, legal or illegal -- with no license or auto insurance.

7News co-anchor Anne Trujillo introduced the segment by saying, “Illegal immigrants caught behind the wheel driving without a valid license, driving without insurance,” and a corresponding 7News website article headline asked, “Are Illegal Immigrants Mocking Legal System?” But 7News investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski presented no factual evidence that any of the four traffic court defendants whose cases he documented were illegal immigrants. One defendant showed Kovaleski a Mexican driver's license, but Kovaleski did not ask the man about his immigration status. Kovaleski also apparently tried to stave off criticism of his report by saying, “This is not about race or racial profiling; it's about breaking the law.”

In July 2005, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies reported that the estimated portion “of motorists on Colorado roads who do not carry auto insurance ranges from 25 to 33 percent.” And, according to a 2005 report by the Colorado Department of Transportation analyzing crash data from 2002, 26.9 percent of Colorado vehicle crashes resulting in injury involved at least one driver with no license, and 49.1 percent of fatal crashes involved at least one driver with no license. These figures did not include a breakdown by immigration status. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Center for Statistics and Analysis showed that, in Colorado in 2002, 40.9 percent of drivers without valid licenses involved in fatal crashes had “previous recorded suspensions or revocations,” indicating that a substantial percentage of such drivers had once been eligible to obtain a valid driver's license.

Kovaleski's report suggested that unlicensed, uninsured, illegal immigrant drivers were a major problem on Denver roads without providing any factual evidence or context to determine whether illegal immigrants were more or less representative of the problem than any other demographic, such as citizens or legal immigrants.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Colorado's population in 2005 to be 4,665,177. And, according to a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center study based on U.S. Census Bureau data, the estimated undocumented migrant population in Colorado between 2002 and 2004 was between 200,000 and 250,000, or roughly 4 percent to 5 percent of the state's population.

From KMGH 7News' website video:

TRUJILLO: We turn now to a 7News investigation. Illegal immigrants caught behind the wheel driving without a valid license, driving without insurance. 7News investigator Tony Kovaleski caught many of these illegal drivers behind the wheel, and some of them minutes after they were in court for the same offense. Tony.

KOVALESKI: Exactly, Anne. We watch it happen every night of the week inside Denver's traffic court, outside Denver's City and County Building. They were all caught by police, guilty in court, and back on the road in minutes.

[begin video clip]

DAVID LEIGH: I was hit by an uninsured, unlicensed driver.

VOICEOVER: David Leigh received physical and financial injuries.

LEIGH: The lady that was driving didn't speak any English.

VOICEOVER: Police reports show the other driver had no insurance, no valid license.

LEIGH: Really, the only three things that she was able to say was, “I'm sorry. I have no license, I have no insurance.”

VOICEOVER: He's left holding the medical bills, the car repair bills, and left wondering how many others are out there.

[three clips of judge saying three different times, “No valid driver's license,” followed by another judge asking, “Do you have a driver's license?” ]

VOICEOVER: Inside Denver's traffic court, we learned the answer is: many.

COURT OFFICIAL: 4:30 Traffic. 4:30 court. Recorded 4:30. Stop here to look at your name on the board.

JUDGE: Charges are three-point no valid driver's license and ...

VOICEOVER: Jorge De La Cruz has offended three different times.

JUDGE: All right, then what is your plea?

DE LA CRUZ: Guilty.

VOICEOVER: Court records show De La Cruz driving without a license and insurance in May 2004; driving without a license and insurance in February 2006; and in October 2006, again driving without a license.

KOVALESKI (talking to De La Cruz, sitting in the driver's seat): You don't have a license.

DE LA CRUZ: I have the Mexican license.

KOVALESKI: But you don't have a license to drive in Colorado.

DE LA CRUZ: No.

VOICEOVER: Minutes after his guilty plea, we found him behind the wheel of his car.

KOVALESKI: So, the rules don't matter?

DE LA CRUZ: No. Yeah, yeah.

VOICEOVER: And he drove away without a license, without a license plate.

JUDGE: You told the officer you've lived here six years. So how do you plead to the charge of driving without a valid license?

LAWYER: Guilty.

VOICEOVER: Israel Gonzalez's record includes driving without a license two times in 2006. Again, minutes after leaving the courtroom, we found him in the driver's seat.

KOVALESKI: So you can't get -- you have no license.

GONZALEZ: No.

KOVALESKI: Why -- why are you driving?

JUDGE: Driving without a valid license. Second conviction.

LAWYER: Guilty.

VOICEOVER: And Urbano Bustos told the magistrate he has driven for five years without a license, without insurance.

KOVALESKI: Tiene una licencia?

BUSTOS: Yes. Gover Mexico.

KOVLEVSKI: Mexico?

BUSTOS: Yes.

KOVALESKI: You were going to get in the car and drive.

BUSTOS: Yes.

KOVLEVSKI: Right? You just told the judge you didn't have a license.

VOICEOVER: And a few minutes later ...

KOVALESKI: You're still gonna drive off?

JUDGE ANDY ARMATAS: They're obviously ignoring the system.

VOICEOVER: Presiding Judge Andy Armatas ...

ROGERS: Well, it's very disturbing.

VOICEOVER: ... and Denver Police Detective Nick Rogers reviewed what we found.

KOVALESKI: Are they mocking the system? Are they mocking the laws of our country?

ARMATAS: Well, I think anybody who comes to court and drives away, regardless of where they're from, if you want to categorize it mocking, I guess they are mocking.

KOVALESKI: You were just in court, right?

DRIVER: Yes.

KOVALESKI: Driving without a license?

DRIVER: Yes.

KOVALESKI: Three times?

DRIVER: No, first time.

KOVALESKI: No, that's not true. We've got the paperwork right here.

DRIVER: Three times?

KOVALESKI: Three times. Your name.

DRIVER: Money for me?

ROGERS: Somebody needs to take this as a serious problem, and they need to deal with it. They're not being held accountable.

KOVALESKI (to driver): When you drive off you're gonna break the law. You understand that?

[end video clip]

KOVALESKI (in studio): So you might be asking, “Why aren't these unlicensed drivers in jail or facing deportation?” The simple answer is overcrowded jails. We've asked immigration officials, Denver's mayor, and Denver magistrates to review our investigation. But the men who drove off are really just a small portion of the problem; perhaps most importantly here -- and we stress -- they are caught in a legal system that's clearly allowing it to happen. Anne and Mike.

MIKE LANDESS (co-anchor): Tony, the problem is obvious enough, but the solution doesn't seem to be.

KOVALESKI: Well, and that's one of the points of our investigation, Mike. Right now there appears to be no solution; it's a point of frustration voiced to us by the illegal immigrants. Some told us they are welcomed by their employers but not by our laws or motor vehicle system. They find work, but they can't legally obtain a driver's license, and that means they can't purchase insurance. The purpose of our investigation was to bring this issue to light and allow taxpayers, voters, and lawmakers to find a solution. Clearly, this current system is broken.

TRUJILLO: And, Tony, this is clearly a polarizing investigation, but some people have come out and criticized your story, calling it racial profiling. What do you say to that?

KOVALESKI: A very valid question, Anne. Let me explain our methodology. We attended two traffic courts on six different nights. Our investigation focused on objective criteria. The individuals were accused of driving without a license, driving without insurance. They were unable to provide a valid license or valid insurance. They all entered guilty pleas and walked out of the courthouse and attempted to drive away. This is not about race or racial profiling; it's about breaking the law.

TRUJILLO: All right, Tony. Thank you.