By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
California residents cannot legally drive while holding just a foreign license and their cars could be subject to 30-day impounds.
That was the tentative ruling Tuesday from a Sonoma County judge in the case of a Rohnert Park man who was cited four times for driving without a California license.
Demetro Martinez’s last ticket came in May when he was pulled over in Santa Rosa for a driving infraction, according to a tentative ruling from Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil.
Martinez, who had been cited for the same offense two months earlier, was handed a fourth ticket and had his car impounded. He was challenging the legality of the impound.
At an administrative hearing five days later, a hearing officer confirmed the seizure was proper and determined early release of the car was not justified.
The hearing officer rejected an argument from Martinez’s lawyer that his Mexican license — which expires in 2015 — prevented authorities from seizing his locally registered car on grounds that he didn’t possess a license.
Martinez challenged the decision but it was upheld Tuesday by Tansil.
Tansil found the temporary seizure reasonable, but said he would consider additional information and make a final ruling Aug. 30.
“Towing a car … is authorized when a driver is stopped, arrested and cited and that person was never issued a license,” Tansil wrote. “This obviously means a California license.”
Car impounds are a hot-button issue in Sonoma County and elsewhere across the state.
Immigrant rights advocates say undocumented people are unfairly targeted at DUI checkpoints by law enforcement and penalized with impound fees that are often greater than the value of the car.
The problem is caused by the fact that illegal immigrants are not allowed to obtain licenses, advocates said.
Proponents of the seizures argue that allowing people to drive without proper credentials is a public safety risk.
Recently, some Sonoma County police agencies said they would soften impound policies for people whose only violation is driving without a license. And a bill from Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, would limit when officers can impound cars at DUI checkpoints.
Speaking from the bench Tuesday, Tansil suggested law enforcement agencies adopt a uniform approach to the issue of unlicensed drivers.
Meanwhile, Martinez’s attorneys, Alicia Roman and Montana Podva, argued that immigrants with foreign licenses should get consideration because they have received behind-the-wheel training.
Roman, who has been outspoken opponent of impounds occurring at checkpoints, compared people holding Mexican licenses to those with licenses from states outside California.
She said police wouldn’t impound a car from a driver just because the person had a New York license, for instance.
Mexican immigrants, on the other hand, are losing their cars, she said.
However, Tansil drew a distinction between people visiting and those who have moved to the state permanently. He said drivers are obligated to get licensed within a certain period.
If they don’t, they can have their cars impounded, he said.
“A resident of California cannot legally drive while holding just a foreign license,” he wrote. “Whether or not a resident driver had an active or expired foreign license is irrelevant in this context.”