California to Stop Towing, Impounding Vehicles of Unlicensed Drivers

BY News Desk  December 29, 2011 at 1:02 PM EDT

Starting Jan. 1, a new law will take effect in California, meaning that police officers can no longer impound a car at sobriety checkpoints if the driver’s only offense is driving without a license, according to The Associated Press. Under the old law, unlicensed drivers’ cars could be impounded for 30 days and charged thousands of dollars in fees. A person driving without a license will now be able to have a licensed driver take his or her car home.

The controversial law was the subject of an investigation by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley that aired on NewsHour in February 2010.
The investigation found that impounds brought in over $40 million in revenue from fees and auctions for local governments and towing companies in 2009 alone. For every arrest for driving under intoxication at the sobriety checkpoints, there were as many as 60 cars seized from unlicensed drivers. The reporting program’s director is special correspondent Lowell Bergman, who narrated this report last year:

The law hit especially hard on undocumented immigrants, who can not legally obtain a license in California, according to Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, who wrote the legislation that takes effect on Sunday.

“Cities are exploiting a broken immigration system, exploiting broken state laws, taking advantage and exploiting the most vulnerable members of our society,” Cedillo told the Investigative Reporting Program in 2010.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the changes are an issue of fairness. “There is a vast difference between someone driving without a license because they cannot legally be issued one and someone driving after having their license revoked,” Beck said.

The Southern California Immigration Coalition praised the changes to the law at a Dec. 22 news conference in Los Angeles, public radio station KPCC reported.

However, supporters of the original impound rules say that more people driving without licenses can lead to more wrecks on the road.

“In 20 percent of traffic fatalities, there’s at least one unlicensed driver involved,” professor David Ragland of UC-Berkeley said in 2010. “Therefore, it is extremely important that we find a way to get people without licenses off the road.”

Jim Maher, police chief of Escondido, which said it ended a practice of checkpoints solely to catch unlicensed drivers in 2010, told the AP that the new law is “really disappointing.”

“We have done drivers’ license checkpoints – which we now call ‘traffic safety checkpoints’ – since 2004,” Maher told KPBS in September. “Both are totally unrelated to immigration.”

Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user OfficerGreg