Oct 10, 2011 10:03 PM by Ariel Wesler

Governor signs controversial law protecting unlicensed drivers from impounds

Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that restricts local police from impounding vehicles at DUI checkpoints if the driver's only offense is not having a license.

The controversial law allows sober, unlicensed drivers to have a licensed driver remove the vehicle from the checkpoint. The new law also allows drivers to pick up their car the next day, and no longer have it impounded for a minimum of 30 days.

Lawmakers say some cities have been using the impounds to target illegal immigrants, milking them for thousands of dollars in impound fees. Santa Maria doesn't have its own impound lot, so it contracts with seven towing companies in town. Now, they stand to lose thousands.

For local towing companies, the new law is bad for business. With fewer vehicles to impound, they will likely need fewer drivers.

"In this economy with unemployment problems as they are, there's another possibility that we have to put someone in an unemployment line," said Brian Gomez, Manager of Santa Maria Towing.

The new rule prevents unlicensed drivers from having their vehicles impounded at a DUI checkpoints.

"I just can't be sympathetic to people who break the law," said Santa Maria Police Chief Dan Macagni. "An unlicensed driver that is untrained, unlicensed, it's dangerous!"

Macagni says the law will prevent officers from making the streets safer. Santa Maria already has the most hit and run accidents per capita in the state.

"When one of our residents are the victim of a hit and run by one of these drivers, I think it's unfair to them," Macagni said.

Previously, those caught driving without a license had to have their vehicles impounded for at least 30 days, costing drivers thousands.

"We don't condone unlicensed drivers," said Hazel Putney with PUEBLO, a non-profit organization that advocates for the Hispanic community.

It's leaders insist drunk driving poses a greater risk.

"Bottom line. We need drunk drivers off the road and that's where the energy will be focused," Putney said.

PUEBLO sees it as a win-win situation.

"The person caught without a license still gets punished for not having a license. However, instead of giving thousands of dollars to the towing company to get their car out of the impound lot, their instead able to spend that money toward more helpful causes," Putney said.

The law only applies to checkpoints. The chief says his officers will still impound vehicles during routine traffic stops if the driver is unlicensed.

Driving without a license is a misdemeanor and the fine is up to $400.

The new law takes effect immediately. Santa Maria's next DUI and license checkpoint will be Friday, October 21.


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