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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Distraught Father Fights Bill That Lets Unlicensed Drivers Keep Their Cars

Posted By on Thu, May 31, 2012 at 8:08 AM

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California State Assembly Bill 1993, introduced by San Francisco Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, would prohibit police officers from impounding or towing an unlicensed person's car if the car can be parked nearby or if a licensed driver can come and pick it up.

The idea behind the bill is that the current automatic 30-day impound penalty for unlicensed driving disproportionately punishes undocumented immigrants, who are not able to get a driver's license, and low-income people, who often lose their cars because they are unable to pay the impound fee. The practice has already been adopted in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Los Angeles.

But Don Rosenberg, whose 25-year-old son was killed by an unlicensed driver in November 2010, doesn't buy that argument.

"I understand your compassion for the hardship that not being able to get licensed causes these people," he wrote in a letter to Ma. "However, jeopardizing the lives, safety, and welfare of the law-abiding for those who have made a choice to illegally come to the United States is just wrong."

He cited his own experience:

On June 14, 2010, Roberto Galo was caught driving the wrong way on a one way street, driving without a license and driving without insurance. His car was impounded, only because he couldn't get a licensed driver to come pick it up. Less than 24 hours later he had his car back and continued to drive. On November 16, 2010 at the corner of Harrison and 16th street in San Francisco he struck and killed my son driving back and forth over his body 3 times trying to escape.

Indeed, though unlicensed drivers comprise 5 percent of the driving population, they are involved in 18 percent of fatal crashes, according to a AAA study released in November. And those crashes are far more likely to involve a driver who has never been licensed than a driver whose license was suspended or revoked.

This can create legal liabilities for cities, say opponents of the bill.

If an unlicensed driver gets pulled over, keeps his car, then gets into an accident, the municipality might be sued -- this happened to Solano County after an licensed driver, weeks removed from a traffic stop, crashed into a man's trailer.

The 30-day penalty, Rosenberg and others argue, is a just deterrent against unlicensed driving. For every unlicensed driver who can't afford to reclaim his car, there will be one less unlicensed driver on the road. This is the Los Angeles police union's stance, and it sued the department over the policy.

The issue, at least for those sympathetic to undocumented immigrants, is whether the 30-day impound penalty improves road safety to such an extent that justifies the hardship it throws at those immigrants. Ma argues that getting caught without a license shouldn't be much different than most other traffic violations, like lack of insurance or speeding, which amounts to a citation or a fix-it ticket.

While opponents of the bill claim that this is a step toward condoning unlicensed driving, it's inescapably an immigration quandary. In a sense, it is a conscious step in the opposite direction of Arizona and Alabama. While those states are going out of their way to make undocumented immigrants' lives worse, California would be going out of its way to make undocumented immigrants' lives better.

There are solutions outside of this particular legislative debate. Some opponents of this bill have declared that the win-win scenario is to let undocumented immigrants get driver's licenses.

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Albert Samaha


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