No license, behind the wheel

Posted: Aug 11, 2006 12:01 AM

The state Senate already has voted 25 to 14 to create a special exemption in state law that would reduce the mandatory 30-day impoundment of cars driven by unlicensed drivers, so that offenders who have never had a valid license can get their cars back after 24 hours.

Right now, when officers impound the cars of unlicensed drivers, the mandatory term is 30 days. A new law would keep the 30 days for drivers whose bad driving led to the forfeiture or suspension of their license -- may the courts add whatever punishment they so choose -- but create a loophole to give unlicensed illegal immigrants their cars back overnight. Expect the California Assembly to approve SB626 as early as today.

Break federal immigration law, then break California law by driving without a license, and Sacramento wants you to get your car back the next day so that you can continue driving without a license -- and probably without insurance, because you need a license to qualify for it. It's almost as if the Legislature is telling illegal immigrants that the state expects them to drive without a license.

This measure makes no sense. As GOP state Sen. Chuck Poochigian of Fresno, a candidate for state attorney general who voted against SB626, noted, "If you ever complied with the law and your car is impounded, you will face a tougher penalty than if you never chose to obtain a license." Why? The office of bill author state Sen. Nell Soto, D-Pomona, sent me a fact sheet to explain that SB626 would make the vehicle code "fairer," as the measure would "end the excessive penalties the code exacts against adults unable to obtain drivers licenses." The bill would keep the 30-day impoundment for people who drive even though their licenses were revoked or suspended.

Wayne Bilowit of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department noted that at least those driving with suspended licenses had to pass a drivers' test -- so they know how to drive safely, even if they don't. This law would make it a "one day and out" fine for offenders who never passed a driving test.

Pomona resident John Whitney is a member of the community group One LA that started the drive for the bill. He told me that he supports a 30-day impound for drunken drivers and others who drive without a license, but as a "conservative Christian evangelical," he wants to see different treatment for those who cannot get a license because they are not legal residents. He added that some tow companies charge too much of car owners; after 30 days, the cost exceeds what many hard-working immigrant families can readily absorb.

I am sure that Whitney is right that a month-long impounding of their cars is a hardship on working families. It is also a hardship on people who drive with suspended licenses -- as it is meant to be.

Let me add: Why does California spend billions of dollars on public transportation, if we don't think people without drivers' licenses should have to use it? One bill supporter is Pomona Police Chief James Lewis. Earlier this year, his department reduced the length of impoundment time from 30 days to one day. Whitney believes that when Pomona police impound a car for one day instead of one month, they enjoy better relations with the community and improved community policing.

Then again, Pomona apparently doesn't need SB626 to exert local control and issue a reduced penalty.

I asked Whitney if he believed people should drive without a license. He answered no. Should they drive without insurance? He said no, again.

Then what should the punishment be? Whitney did not want to answer, but he finally said, impounding a car for one day.

Great. One day. So the next day, an unlicensed driver can pick up the car and drive without a license or insurance, secure in the knowledge that there is a not much of a penalty for doing so. L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca opposed SB626. Bilowit explained that a one-day impoundment makes breaking the law cheap and easy.

While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office has no official position on SB626, he did veto a similar bill in 2005, noting that such legislation "would send a message to unlicensed drivers that it is acceptable to break the law." The pro-illegal immigrant lobby likes to complain that the law sends mixed messages to illegal immigrants. Then they push for laws -- like a slap on the wrist for driving without a license -- that muddle the message again. I have to ask: If California lawmakers don't respect the law, why should California voters respect their lawmakers?