The San Jose Police Department last week joined a small, but growing, list of law enforcement agencies moving to change their policies to avoid impounding unlicensed drivers’ cars for a month.
California law allows police to seize cars driven by motorists with a suspended or revoked license – or with no license at all. And if officers impound those cars, the laws says the vehicles shall be held for 30 days – raking up thousands of dollars in fines and fees per car, paid to cities and tow companies.
A majority of the drivers losing their cars are illegal immigrants who cannot legally obtain a driver’s license.
The result has been tens of thousands of vehicles impounded across California each year. This phenomenon has often turned patrol officers into tow dispatchers and sobriety checkpoints into mass impoundments.
Immigrant rights groups have vigorously lobbied cities to soften impound policies.
These groups started scoring victories a year ago, when the San Francisco Police Department began granting unlicensed motorists a 20-minute reprieve to find someone to legally move their cars.
The city of Baldwin Park followed suit [PDF] in October with a different approach.
When police there catch an unlicensed driver, officers are still directed to cite the motorist and tow the car but not to impound. Instead, the car owner will be able to retrieve the vehicle the next day so long as they have a legal driver.
At sobriety checkpoints in 2009, Baldwin Park police were among California’s most prolific impounders, seizing 48 cars per operation, data from the state Office of Traffic Safety shows.
As of November, the Berkeley Police Department also took on a policy of tow but don’t impound.
“This policy will prevent those who simply cannot get a driver’s license, in many cases due to their immigration status, from having their vehicles impounded,” Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz wrote in a memo to city employees, as quoted by the Berkeley Voice.
The San Jose’s policy change – still under legal review – will incorporate parts of all the above changes, said Sgt. Ronnie Lopez, a police spokesman.
Unlicensed motorists cited for non-hazardous violations would have a chance to find a legal driver to remove their car. “Or, if worst comes to worst and it’s obstructing a roadway or for some reason we have to tow it, we’d like to tow it without having the 30-day impound,” Lopez said.
The police department is motivated in large part by the logistical challenges impounds present. As the San Jose Mercury News reports:
Police statistics show that about 80 cars a week are towed from unlicensed drivers and held for the mandated month long impound, often ending up abandoned for good. (San Jose Acting Police Chief Chris) Moore said the policy was taking up a lot of officer time – up to an hour a tow – and not slowing the flow of unlicensed people behind the wheel. Many buy cheap cars, according to police, and when they lose them to the impound, they buy another.
‘This is by no means a change that allows people to drive without a valid license. That is still illegal,’ Moore added. ‘But the intent of the tow policy was to remove those drivers from the road, and the problem is that it's not doing that.’
Until two years ago, officers potentially faced legal liability if they did not impound an unlicensed driver’s car.
In 2004, a California Highway Patrol officer arrested Scott St. Pierre for driving under the influence and for driving with a suspended license, court records show. The CHP had St. Pierre’s car stored, not impounded. Just hours after being released from jail, St. Pierre was again driving his car and caused a fatal accident that killed another motorist, Jerry Walker.
Walker’s family sued the highway patrol, arguing the agency failed to follow state law and impound the car for 30 days. In 2008, a state appellate court ruled that CHP officers had discretion on whether to seize cars in those situations.