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Katz’s ‘Safe Streets Act’ Passes One Roadblock : Legislation: Senate panel passes bill that would allow the state to seize vehicles of some unlicensed drivers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hotly debated legislation allowing the state government to seize the cars of some unlicensed drivers won approval by a key Senate committee Tuesday night, despite heated protests.

Apparently moved by dramatic arguments that the bill could save lives by removing dangerous drivers from the road, the state Senate Judiciary Committee passed the measure by a 7-4 vote. It would apply to those arrested for driving without a valid license after a previous conviction for such an offense.

Critics called the bill a Big Brother measure that would be overly severe in punishing people by taking away private property.

But the measure’s author, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), said that was a small price to pay to avoid loss of life in accidents caused by drivers with no business being behind the wheel.

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“Unlicensed drivers are killing children, destroying families and taking over our roads,” Katz said. “People are dying because of a preventable crime.”

The bill, dubbed by Katz the Safe Streets Act of 1994, now goes to the Senate appropriations committee before heading to the full Senate for a vote.

The bill’s passage followed a public campaign by Katz to step up the pressure on the initially reluctant senators. Last week, Katz held a North Hills news conference, during which relatives of people killed by unlicensed drivers supported the measure.

According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, about 1 million motorists who have never held a license drive the state’s roadways. Another 720,000 are still driving although their licenses have been suspended or revoked.

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DMV statistics indicate that a driver with a suspended license is four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than one with a valid license.

Although Katz sought to have the vehicles of all unlicensed motorists seized, he agreed in the face of stiff opposition Tuesday to soften his bill so it would apply only to drivers with at least one previous conviction.

Under the amended bill, motorists who had been convicted of driving without a valid license and who were unable to produce a valid license during traffic stops would have their cars impounded on the spot.

The scenario provoked warnings from opponents who said they viewed it as an infringement of the basic rights of Americans.

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“That bill is elitist,” said Richard J. Quigley of Aptos, who said he lost his license because he couldn’t afford insurance. “It tries to create driving as a wealth-based classification.”

The bill boasted a long list of supporters, topped by more than 60 police departments. Among the backers were the city of Los Angeles, the League of California Cities, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Northeast Valley Residents Assn.

Opponents included the American Civil Liberties Union and an activist group called Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, or F.E.A.R.

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