As California’s attorney general, Jerry Brown was the first to crack down on questionable car impounds at checkpoints.
Soon, it appears, the governor also will get the last word on the legality of police seizing vehicles from sober but unlicensed motorists at roadway operations intended to catch drunken drivers.
The practice has become rampant throughout California, generating tens of millions of dollars in fines and fees for cities and tow companies. Illegal immigrants, unable to obtain a license, make up an overwhelming majority of the motorists who lose cars at checkpoints.
Drivers who don’t have a license or have had their driving privileges suspended or revoked can have their cars impounded for 30 days. The fees and fines that car owners must pay to retrieve their vehicles often reach more than $1,500.
AB 353, intended to prevent many of these impounds, made it to the floor of the state Senate this week. If passed, the legislation goes to Brown to sign or veto.
The governor has not taken a public position on the bill, written by Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. Elizabeth Ashford, spokeswoman for Brown, said the governor doesn't comment on legislation before he takes action on it.
Brown repeatedly has overseen investigations related to checkpoint impounds in recent years.
At his direction, the California attorney general’s Civil Rights Enforcement Section examined such seizures in the city of Maywood, east of Los Angeles. Unlicensed drivers were a revenue source for the police department, according to the attorney general’s 2009 report. The specifics:
At minimum, supervisors put pressure on officers to identify and cite unlicensed drivers and to impound their vehicles. But it was the Department’s decision to set up traffic checkpoints that created great controversy. The traffic checkpoints commenced in 1999 and continued through sometime between late 2003 and 2004. Witnesses estimated the number of vehicles towed per night at these checkpoints to be in the 70 to 100 range. This estimate has been verified through documents obtained from the City.
Next to Maywood, officials in the city of Bell also were targeting unlicensed drivers’ cars for impound. The seizures brought in cash used to pay exorbitant, and potentially criminal, salaries, the Los Angeles Times reported last year. Brown also launched a probe into the Bell scandal.
Police in dozens of California cities impound cars en mass at roadway operations.
There were six impounds for every one DUI arrest at holiday sobriety checkpoints during the 2010 fiscal year, according to data from the Safe Transportation Research & Education Center at UC Berkeley. The center operates a grant program funding the checkpoints for the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Thirty-five cities that year ran checkpoints at which police seized 20 or more cars per drunken driver arrest, the data shows.
AB 353 attacks checkpoint impounds from several directions. It prohibits cities from having operations that focus equally on valid driver’s licenses and intoxication. California law already prohibits license-only checkpoints.
With few exceptions, police could seize a car only when the motorist is suspected of a crime beyond unlicensed driving. Local governments would be protected from liability for damage or loss when they park, rather than tow, a vehicle.
And on occasions when an unlicensed driver’s car is taken to an impound lot, the legislation requires the vehicle be available for release the next day.