By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Opponents of police vehicle impoundment practices are hitting the streets, intent on warning motorists of police checkpoints in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
The cost of reclaiming an impounded auto, typically $2,000, places an “undue hardship” on low-income people, including Latino immigrants, she said.
“People are upset this is going on,” Roman said.
Police officials, who have discussed the issue with Roman’s group and American Civil Liberties Union representatives, say the checkpoints are both legal and appropriate.
“I believe it is an effective strategy for making the streets safer,” said Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm.
“There are consequences for not following the law,” he said, regarding the impoundments and cost of getting the car back.
Petaluma Police Sgt. Ken Savano, who coordinates checkpoints, acknowledged that the protesters are exercising their First Amendment right of free speech and may do so as long as they do not obstruct sidewalks or get in a roadway.
“They are taking a close look at law enforcement,” Savano said. “We don’t have any problem with that.”
But he also suggested that the protests might enable alcohol-impaired drivers, “who could kill any one of us,” to evade the checkpoints.
The police stops are intended to catch people driving under the influence, as well as motorists with suspended or revoked licenses and unlicensed drivers, he said.
The 30-day impound is applied only to drivers cited for license violations, Savano said, and keeps a vehicle “away from that driver for 30 days.”
Roman said the checkpoint protests are intended to warn Spanish-speaking drivers, including illegal immigrants whose status prohibits them from obtaining California driver’s licenses.
“We are not out there to help drunk drivers,” she said.
Amalia Greenberg Delgado, an ACLU attorney in San Francisco, said that the Santa Rosa checkpoints are netting substantially more driver’s license violations than DUI citations.
Santa Rosa police statistics, obtained by Roman, show that 5,277 vehicles were screened at checkpoints between December 2006 and June 2008, resulting in 96 vehicles towed for license violations and six DUI arrests.
Savano noted that DUI arrests in Petaluma increased 8 percent in 2009-10, while vehicle collisions are down 20 percent. They have dropped to the lowest level in 10 years, a trend he attributed largely to the checkpoints.
“It is absolutely worth it,” Savano said.
Rick Coshnear, a Santa Rosa attorney and member of the Committee for Immigration Rights, said police are blurring the distinction between drivers who have never had a license and those who are currently unlicensed but may have previously been licensed in Mexico, another state or in California before it ceased licensing undocumented immigrants.
The state law on vehicle impoundment applies to people whose licenses have been suspended, revoked or restricted or those “driving a vehicle without ever having been issued a driver’s license.”
It is likely, Coshnear said, that drivers “whose licenses have been suspended or revoked…are much more dangerous than those who do not currently have a valid license.”
Santa Rosa’s vehicle impound program was started in the mid-1990s in response to a spate of hit-and-run collisions and the finding that many who flee from a crash are unlicensed drivers, Schwedhelm said.
Numerous collisions still involve unlicensed and uninsured drivers who cause injuries and property damage, he said. “That’s the other side of the story,” Schwedhelm said.
Officers have discretion to avoid impounding vehicles for license violations, enabling the driver and occupants to get home safely by taxi or with a licensed driver, Schwedhelm said.
But an unlicensed driver cannot be allowed to drive away because that would expose the city to significant liability, he said.
“We are going to encourage our officers to impound,” Schwedhelm said.
The road would be safer, Savano said, if all residents — regardless of immigration status — were tested and licensed to drive, and required to carry insurance.
Such a decision is up to the Legislature, Schwedhelm said, agreeing that universal licensing “may help the situation.”
The ACLU has submitted to Santa Rosa a proposed impound policy that would prohibit towing away a safely parked vehicle, or if a licensed driver could retrieve it “in a reasonable time period.”
It would also allow, under some conditions, the vehicle to be towed to the driver’s home instead of an impoundment lot.
In a letter to the ACLU, Schwedhelm acknowledged receiving the proposed policy. Police are updating towing and impoundment policies and “will take your recommendations into consideration,” the chief wrote.
Petaluma’s next checkpoints will be on FridayJuly 16 and July 23. Santa Rosa’s next effort will be Labor Day weekend.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.