Bills written to shield illegal immigrants in California from losing their cars to impound have been stalled, vetoed or voted down for years.
In the past two weeks, however, two such pieces of legislation reached the governor’s desk with minimal political scuffling.
Sobriety checkpoints are intended to target drunken drivers, but in California, the roadway operations catch sober, unlicensed motorists far more often. A majority of these drivers are illegal immigrants.
Data from the state Office of Traffic Safety shows that at roadway operations during the holidays, police impounded six cars for every one DUI arrest made in 2010. The numbers in South Gate, southeast of Los Angeles, were 36 to 1.
Investigations by reporters and state authorities in the past two years have found officials in Maywood and Bell improperly directing police to seize vehicles for the cash they bring.
Local corruption was among the most significant reasons why anti-impound bills fared better this legislative session, said Ignacio Hernandez, a lobbyist and Sacramento attorney.
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“These smaller cities weren’t immune from making some very serious, very bad decisions and some very self-motivated decisions in how they administer their cities,” said Hernandez, who worked to support the legislation. “And, certainly, checkpoints became part of it.”
Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t signaled whether he will sign or veto AB 1389 and AB 353. Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for the governor, said by e-mail that Brown wouldn’t take a side before he takes action on the legislation.
More than 100 cities in California run sobriety checkpoints, funded by state and federal grants.
State lawmakers made legal residence in the United States a prerequisite to get a California driver’s license in 1993. About a year later, they changed the vehicle code so that police must seize the cars of unlicensed motorists for 30 days.
Those acts, taken together, transformed sobriety checkpoints in dozens of California cities into mass impound operations, collecting thousands of cars a year from illegal immigrant drivers. Local police and transportation officials argue the gain has been safer streets, as uncertified motorists are statistically more dangerous.
"Unlicensed drivers (suspended, revoked, or no license) pose a risk of fatal and injury collisions to themselves and other road users comparable to drivers under the influence," David Ragland, a UC Berkeley public health professor, said in a written statement to California Watch. Fatal car accidents involving unlicensed drivers have declined in California since 2006, an improvement Ragland credits to checkpoint impounds.
But the gain from impounds, so to speak, also has been to city government and tow company cash flow.
Thirty-day impounds generated an estimated $40 million statewide in the 2009 fiscal year, reporting by California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley found. Vehicle seizures have been growing in recent years, as the practice of combining sobriety and driver's license operations has become standard in the past decade.
Republican lawmakers have been nearly unanimous in voting against the bills, though not all reject limiting police power to impound.
"As a property-rights Republican, I want to strike a balance," Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The checkpoint bills are companion pieces, though Brown could enact one and reject the other.
Assemblymen Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, and Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, initially introduced separate measures targeting checkpoint impounds. They joined forces during the past two months and revised their bills to rewrite different parts of the law on vehicle seizures.
The first, AB 1389, primarily places in statute what a California Supreme Court decision made the law in 1987.
In the Ingersoll v. Palmer ruling, justices said police must stage DUI checkpoints on roads where drunk driving crashes and arrests are high, and they must give the public 48 hours' notice before starting an operation.
AB 1389 would not reduce officers’ authority when it comes to potentially intoxicated drivers.
However, “if the driver does not display objective signs of impairment, the driver would be required to be permitted to drive on without further delay,” with few exceptions, an analysis by the Assembly Transportation Committee said.
AB 353 is far more aggressive legislation.
If signed into law, it would block cities from combining driver’s license checks with sobriety operations. Further, at checkpoints, police would not be allowed to impound a car solely because a driver is unlicensed, and motorists driving illegally would have time to find a licensed driver.
In cases in which a legal driver cannot be found to remove a car, police still could not impound, only tow away for the night.