California To Stop Towing Cars Because Someone is Unlicensed

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ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Police in California will soon stop towing cars from unlicensed drivers at sobriety checkpoints.

A state law that takes effect Jan. 1 is a major victory for advocates who say the vehicle impounds enrich cities and towing companies at the expense of illegal immigrants. Like most states, California denies drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Under the new law, they will get to keep their cars if stopped at the checkpoints as long as they are sober and can find a licensed driver.

The tows have been controversial in California, which allows police to impound vehicles for up to 30 days. That can easily rack up fees topping $1,000. Many unlicensed drivers surrender their vehicles to towing companies, who auction them off.

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Excerpts from "Calif. bill would protect unlicensed drivers from arrest"

Vivian Ho, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday, September 12, 2011

Supporters say the bill, AB353, would impose a consistent policy statewide - some agencies confiscate unlicensed drivers' cars now, and some do not - while keeping DUI checkpoints from being turned into traps for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who cannot obtain licenses.

"In most parts of California, you basically have to have a car," said Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "You have to be able to drive to survive, to get anywhere. Because of that, the truth is, immigrant drivers without licenses will be driving anyway because of the necessity. The towing of cars will not stop people from driving."

Silverman said the current DUI checkpoint policy singles out illegal immigrants for punishment.

He said he understands the dangers of unlicensed drivers. A 2000 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that unlicensed drivers were 4.9 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed drivers, 3.7 times more likely to drive while intoxicated, and 4.4 times more likely to be hit-and-run drivers. An update to the study in 2008 found the statistics virtually unchanged.

But those numbers don't differentiate between illegal immigrants who are unlicensed because they aren't allowed to obtain licenses, and legal citizens who are unlicensed because they refuse to get one or theirs was revoked, Silverman said.