New law bars police from impounding vehicles seized during checkpoints..
Police will no longer be allowed to impound for 30 days the vehicles of unlicensed drivers caught during checkpoints under a bill signed Sunday by Gov. Jerry Brown. When the new law takes effect in January, it will end a policy dreaded by illegal immigrants. Many illegal immigrants drive without licenses because they are not legally allowed to apply for licenses in California. However, the new law will apply only to vehicles seized during checkpoints. The legislation, Assembly Bill 353, sponsored by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, says unlicensed drivers caught at checkpoints will be given an opportunity to call a licensed driver to pick up the vehicle by the end of the operation. If the vehicle is impounded, the owner can recover the vehicle at the tow yard with the help of a licensed driver. Latino and immigrant-rights activists cheered the governor's decision to approve the law. "The people of the State of California, through their legislators, have spoken out against the Draconian measure of 30-day impoundments for driving without a license, a measure that has resulted in hundreds of families losing their most valuable asset, independent transportation, something that most of us take for granted," said Victor Torres, a spokesman for the North County-based El Grupo, an umbrella human-rights organization. The group has criticized the Escondido Police Department and city officials for the department's frequent use of checkpoints, which result in dozens of vehicles being impounded each time. City officials, such as Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher, have defended the operations, saying they reduce the number of crashes in the city. Maher said the department will follow the new law, but that he wishes the governor had not enacted it because it will allow people to continue to drive without a license. "I think it's a terrible law because it's going to let unlicensed drivers back on the road a day or even hours later," Maher said. Unlicensed drivers are dangerous, Maher said, pointing to the case of an unlicensed driver who reportedly killed a 4-year-old boy in Santa Rosa last month. Santa Rosa is home to Assemblyman Michael Allen, a Democrat who co-sponsored AB 353. The driver had been cited several times for driving without a license, including once five days before he ran over the child, Maher said. Maher said lawmakers should have focused instead on a law to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, as he has advocated in the past. Those licenses, however, must look different from regular licenses so they can't be used for any purpose other than driving, Maher said. Brown vetoed another bill, Assembly Bill 1389, written by Assemblyman Allen, that would put additional regulations on police checkpoints, including giving the public 48 hours' notice of a checkpoint and two hours' notice of the checkpoint location. Critics of the checkpoints say the operations have become dragnets. "Our concern about vehicle inspection checks is that they have become fishing expeditions for local police to find a reason to cite someone," said Andrea Guerrero, president of Equality Alliance of San Diego, a group that advocates for immigrant rights. Lawmakers who sponsored the checkpoint and impound bills said they wanted to limit police authority to impound vehicles. They pointed to the city of Bell, where officials were using the law to make money to pay city leaders high salaries. People caught driving without a license can be stuck with a bill of more than $1,200, including administrative fees and towing storage costs. According to a report by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley last year, state-funded sobriety checkpoints in California in 2009 generated $40 million in towing fees and police fines. In Escondido, four towing companies each pay the city $100,000 annually to take vehicles that are impounded, including those seized during checkpoints. Josh Park, owner of Al's Towing, one of the companies that contracts with the city, said it's too early to tell what the new law might mean for his business. "As the bill has just become law, I will not know what the ramifications will be for some time," Park said.