By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor
California cities soon will be restricted from impounding vehicles driven by people caught at sobriety checkpoints without driver’s licenses.
Currently, state law permits cities to hold vehicles taken from unlicensed drivers for 30 days, with impound fees accumulating each day. If unclaimed, law enforcement can auction the vehicles.
More than 100 city and county law enforcement agencies around the state run sobriety checkpoints. Offenders nabbed at checkpoints typically are responsible for paying up to $2,000 in fines and fees.
According to a state analysis, two years ago police impounded more than 24,000 vehicles at checkpoints while about 3,200 were arrested for drunken driving.
Addressing the disparity that has led to accusations of money grabs, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill – AB353 – to provide some leniency. Officers who catch unlicensed sober drivers at checkpoints are required to release the vehicle to a qualified driver representing the registered owner.
The new law takes effect Jan. 1, 2012.
If a qualified driver is not immediately available, the vehicle could also be released later at the impound yard.
Critics say the new law will jeopardize public safety because more unlicensed drivers will be out on roads.
Supporters say the changes are necessary because sobriety checkpoints have turned into revenue generators that target drivers who are ineligible to obtain licenses.
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said the checkpoints are often set up in areas that do not have a higher incidence of drunken driving incidents. Instead, he said the checkpoints are set up where there are higher populations of low-income residents.
Cedillo noted in the bill analysis that with fewer dollars available to local governments, cities are increasing their revenue by using sobriety checkpoints to target certain communities.
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