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Wednesday, Aug 17 2011 06:07 PM

Governor may get last word on car impound controversy

BY RYAN GABRIELSON AND JASON KOTOWSKI, California Watch and Californian staff writer

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.

Related Info

In the City of Bakersfield, revenue from unlicensed driver, DUI or suspended license violations was as follows:

* 2008 -- $326,352

* 2009 -- $500,197

* 2010 -- $451,714.75

Source: Bakersfield Police Department

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.

Thousands of impounds are made in Bakersfield each year, some through checkpoints but many others through patrols.

In 2010, there were a total of 5,612 of the 30-day impounds in the city, including through checkpoints, according to the Bakersfield Police Department. The number in 2009 was 6,244, and in 2008 it was 6,750.

The total number of impounds, not just 30-days impounds, reached 8,921 in 2010, less than the 11,617 total impounds in Bakersfield in 2009 and the 11,875 impounds in 2008, BPD statistics say.

While the impounds generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each year, police Sgt. Mary DeGeare said the money isn't the point. She said it's a public safety issue.

Regarding the possibility of Brown signing the legislation, DeGeare said the BPD will enforce whatever law is currently on the books.

Taft police Lt. Ed Whiting said the legislation, if signed, won't fiscally impact the Taft Police Department one way or the other. He said the department's impound release fee is $35, which he believed is among the lowest in the county.

"We don't make laws, we're here to enforce the laws," Whiting said.

Precision Towing-West, one of the companies Taft contracts with to impound vehicles, would be hit hard if the law goes into effect, owner Dave Gill said. Between 20 and 30 percent of the company's business comes from impounding unlicensed drivers.

The impound fee is a flat $200, plus an additional $50 each day the vehicle is kept in storage, Gill said.

He said some people complain Hispanics are being targeted when their vehicles are impounded, but to him the law is pretty simple -- if you don't have a license, your shouldn't drive. With what he pays in insurance, Gill isn't happy there are people on the road driving without it.

Arvin police Lt. Olan Armstrong said the city's police don't impound unlicensed drivers for a first-time offense, but if they're repeat offenders they may impound the vehicle. He said the decision not to impound for a first-time offense was made because of an interpretation of case law.

The department does, however, impound vehicles of motorists driving on a suspended or revoked license, Armstrong said.

Steve Hallum, owner of Carter's Automotive & Towing, in Arvin, said about 20 percent of the vehicles he impounds are from unlicensed drivers.

"The problem is, any impact is going to hurt," Hallum said of the legislation. "Everything's been so slow economically."

Shafter City Manager John D. Guinn said total revenue off impounds in the city last year was $18,499, and in 2009 it was $15,863. But, like DeGeare, he thinks public safety is the bigger issue.

"My concern isn't with the revenue. It's if the guy is an unlicensed driver we're not going to let him get back in the car and drive it home," he said.

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.

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