H-SANTA MARIA

Sep 6, 2011 10:10 PM by Ariel Wesler

State legislation could ban checkpoint impounds

Controversial legislation could have huge impacts on towing companies and cities across California.

If signed, Assembly Bill 353 would eliminate a city's ability to impound vehicles of unlicensed drivers at DUI checkpoints. The bill has already passed the Assembly and the state Senate. It's now headed to Governor Jerry Brown for approval. The bill is in response to corrupt practices by cities throughout California, like Bell, which exploited unlicensed drivers and charged high impound fees to feed city profits.

As of 2009, Santa Maria has most of hit and runs in the state compared with cities of a similar size and ranks third in the state in vehicle collisions, so you can imagine why the city is concerned.

Cody Teixiera works for Santa Maria Towing, one of seven companies that contracts with the city to impound vehicles. Crews impound at least one car a day and many more on the weekends.

"Most of the money we make is impounds. As a driver, we make a percentage on each impound and that's how we feed our families is off of that percentage," Teixiera said.

Under state law, vehicles are kept for 30 days. At $50 per day, getting your car back would cost you about $1500 dollars. That's money tow companies may very well lose if AB 353 becomes law.

"There will probably be layoffs because of this. If there's not money coming in, you're not going to be as busy," Teixiera said.

In a one year period, the city impounded more than 1200 vehicles, mostly unlicensed drivers during checkpoints and routine traffic patrol. Santa Maria estimates it could lose around $190,000 in fees if those impounds are eliminated, but city leaders say more importantly, impounding cars is a way to make the streets safer.

"You may not be aware of the rules of the road. You could be a menace to other drivers," said Mark van de Kamp, who's a management analyst for the city.

But critics say Santa Maria's checkpoints unfairly target the hispanic community, something the city and its police force have long disputed.

"They are not targeted at any one neighborhood. They are targeted on busy streets," van de Kamp said.

On Sunday, Santa Maria Police cited 24 unlicensed drivers, stopping every 5th car in a four-hour period.

Supporters of the legislation tend to point fingers at the state, saying the California DMV has made it impossible for undocumented workers to get licenses, which are required for them to drive to work, but opponents argue driving is a privilege, not a right.

If Governor Brown signs the bill, it could take effect as early as January 1.

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