After a string of laws that were aimed at restricting the rights of immigrants, some states are taking matters into their own hands to do the exact opposite. In California, a new law takes effect that prohibits police from impounding cars at sobriety checkpoints if a driver’s only offense is not having a license. The practice of impounding the vehicles of illegal immigrants for not having a valid license is not new; it has hit illegal immigrants the hardest since 1993 when they stopped being eligible for a license in the state. All but three states-New Mexico, Utah, and Washington-deny drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. The Associated Press reports that thousands of cars are towed each year in the state because of drivers who lack a driver’s license. The new law was introduced by state Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who tried unsuccessfully to restore driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants after California revoked the privilege back in 1993. As a result, the towing of the driver’s car due to lack of a valid license is no longer going to happen if not having a license is the driver’s only offense that would amount to such a recourse. As would happen with anyone else, they would, for example, still have their car impounded if they fail a sobriety test however. The importance of this law is that it prevents illegal immigrants from being disproportionally targeted any longer.
Towing practices vary widely across the Golden State. In San Francisco, the driver is allowed 20 minutes for an unlicensed driver to find a licensed driver to come get the vehicle at the checkpoint. But supporters of the vehicle impound practice say San Francisco is to lax in its policy, they believe unlicensed drivers are a road hazard as much as drunk drivers are. But it is because of cities in California like Escondido-which has such a large Hispanic population that the street signs are often in Spanish-that the state decided to pass this law so as to stop this punitive practice that disparately hurts one group of people most. The city of Escondido had impounded more than 3,200 vehicles since 2006, had towed about 1,000 at driver-licenses-only checkpoints, and had turned over 670 people to immigration authorities for their deportation. This had become a very lucrative deal for towing companies, six of which would pay the city $75,000 a year to take turns at checkpoints, keeping impound fees for themselves and auctioning the cars that were abandoned which in all usually averaged about a third. That is why the American Civil Liberties Union and El Grupo, a Latino advocacy group, threatened a lawsuit in 2009. Fortunately, as the law that prohibits the practice of impounding the vehicle of a person just for not having a license is now going into effect, many people can now breathe a little easier as they go about their lives and drive their cars around California.