The state Senate on Tuesday voted to restrict cities' ability to impound cars driven by people caught at sobriety checkpoints without driver's licenses. The action came as a direct response to the city of Bell, which made it a practice to confiscate vehicles from unlicensed motorists — many of them illegal immigrants — and then charge high impound fees or sell them in order to fill city coffers.
Currently, cities can hold cars taken from unlicensed drivers for 30 days, with impound fees accruing each day. If unclaimed, the vehicles may then be auctioned off, something that often happens when fines and fees exceed the car's value.
Under the legislation, if a sober driver is caught at a DUI checkpoint without a valid license, officers must release the car to a qualified driver representing the registered owner.
If a licensed driver isn't immediately available, the car can be released to one later by the impound yard.
But some Republican lawmakers said that public safety would be jeopardized by AB 353, which was previously approved by the Assembly but must go back to that chamber for action on amendments. The bill would then go to Gov. Jerry Brown, who has yet to take a position on it.
"If we lower this standard, what we are doing is encouraging more people without driver's licenses to be on the roads," said state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego). "There is a reason they don't have a driver's license. It's not because they are a good driver."
Anti-immigration activists also warned that the legislation would remove one deterrent to illegal immigrants driving without a license.
"It seems if there is a law that inconveniences illegal aliens, they [legislators] are willing to change it," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Bell police officers impounded hundreds of cars because the drivers were unlicensed. But according to the bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), and other lawmakers, the practice is not isolated to the troubled Los Angeles suburb.
"What is really going on here is, some local governments, including the city of Bell, are using this impoundment to make money," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) "Folks on the other side of the aisle who rightfully sometimes rail against government running amok and hurting people with its police powers ought to recognize this for what it is — an abuse."
A handful of Republican senators joined in voting to pass the bill, which Democrats said was narrowly tailored to respond to DUI dragnets that are purely predatory.
Steinberg noted that 24,000 cars were impounded in 2009 at DUI checkpoints in California but that only 3,200 of those behind the wheel were charged with driving under the influence.
The impound measure was one of dozens that lawmakers approved Tuesday.
Among them, the Senate voted to bar cities and counties from enacting laws prohibiting male circumcision. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) had introduced the bill in response to petition drives in two cities. Activists in Santa Monica eventually dropped their effort, and a judge ordered a San Francisco measure off the ballot.
"When you have a situation where a group of extremists is trying to take away the rights of parents and others, I think it is an appropriate role for government to step in and preserve liberty," Gatto said. His bill, AB 768, goes back to the Assembly for action.
The Senate also voted to ban the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups on grounds it is toxic and poses a health threat. Senators sent AB 1319 back to the Assembly, which previously approved a stricter bill, for concurrence on amendments.