By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Police will face new restrictions on impounding the vehicles of unlicensed drivers caught at sobriety checkpoints under a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Brown, however, vetoed a sister bill that would have placed limits on the hours of DUI checkpoints and required law enforcement agencies to announce the exact locations in advance.
Both measures were pushed by Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, and supported by immigrant rights activists.
The issue has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate in Sonoma County. Critics contend that police have misused DUI checkpoints to seize the vehicles of sober but unlicensed drivers, primarily illegal immigrants who cannot obtain a driver’s license under California law. Advocates for undocumented immigrants routinely stake out local DUI checkpoints, waving signs in Spanish to warn approaching drivers.
Under current law, law enforcement authorities may impound the cars of unlicensed drivers for 30 days. The cost of retrieving an impounded vehicle can total $1,500 to $2,000, often more than the value of a car. The result is that many owners simply abandon the car.
Under the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, police must release vehicles taken from sober but unlicensed drivers at DUI checkpoints to a qualified representative of the owner. If a qualified driver is not present, the car must be released to one later at the impound lot.
The law initially was proposed by Allen and later placed into a bill by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. Allen co-authored the measure, AB 353.
Santa Rosa Police Capt. Hank Schreeder said the new law won’t drastically change how his officers handle most unlicensed drivers.
“I don’t think operationally, it’s going to be a big impact,” he said. “Where it becomes problematic is, what happens if you become a multiple offender? As I read it, the law doesn’t allow police officers to store it … Some of this is going to have to be interpreted.”
Allen said he believes there is still enough discretion for police.
“Part of it has to do with whether there is a licensed driver that can pick up the vehicle within a reasonable amount of time,” he said.
The 30-day impound policy became common in the mid-1990s after Santa Rosa police began seizing the vehicles of people caught driving with suspended licenses. The decision was based on evidence that drivers without a valid license were more likely to break traffic laws and be involved in crashes, especially hit-and-runs, police said.
A 1997 DMV study found unlicensed drivers were 4.9 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash. More recent, still-unpublished research indicates a similar rate, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety.
But the issue has taken on a new light this decade as undocumented residents and their advocates have become more vocal.
In the past year, the North Bay Sponsoring Committee, made up of nine religious congregations in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, has worked with law enforcement to craft a more discretionary policy.
On a first offense, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and police in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Petaluma, Windsor and Sonoma allow the car of an unlicensed driver to be turned over to a licensed driver, secured at the scene until a licensed driver can get it, or have it towed, stored and turned over to a licensed driver when towing and storage fees are paid.
CHP officers generally tow cars on a first offense.
On a second offense, Santa Rosa officers, similar to those at other agencies, may take whatever steps deemed necessary to protect the public, which includes a 30-day impound.
Petaluma police generally impound on a second offense, Lt. Tim Lyons said.
“The ultimate goal of checkpoints is education and drunk drivers,” said Santa Rosa’s Schreeder. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”
In vetoing the other checkpoint bill, Brown said the new law would be too onerous on police and too easy on drunken drivers.
The measure, AB 1389 by Allen, would have required police to announce the general location of a checkpoint 48 hours in advance, and the exact location two hours in advance. It also would have limited checkpoints to nighttime hours.
“While I understand there are concerns that some sobriety checkpoints are being operated improperly, this bill is far too restrictive on local law enforcement,” Brown wrote in his veto message.
The effect would be “allowing drunk drivers to avoid detection altogether,” he said.