SACRAMENTO — The Senate approved legislation Thursday that would allow the state to seize for 60 days almost any vehicle--regardless of ownership--if driven by someone who had been ordered off the road for drunk driving and then was convicted again for the same offense.
Supporters praised the bill as a necessary strengthening of the drunk driving laws. They noted that it would penalize the driver or anyone who might lend a convicted drunk driver a vehicle. But opponents criticized it as an unfair punishment of the innocent.
The legislation cleared the Senate on a 25-3 vote and went to the Assembly, where its author, Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), predicted that it probably would perish in the Public Safety Committee.
Lockyer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Senate that an estimated 1 million California motorists whose drivers licenses have been suspended or revoked for drunk driving continue to drive illegally, "drinking and still causing collisions and injuries."
"I know of no other way to deal with them than to take their cars away," Lockyer said, adding that the action would include any car they may be driving.
However, Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), a civil libertarian, said that in some cases, a family car could be impounded for two months because one family member got arrested, leaving other members without transportation for employment, school and shopping. "We're going to be punishing persons who are not guilty of anything," he said.
In reply, Sen. Newton Russell (R-Glendale), told Rosenthal that the opposition he raised against the bill "pales in comparison" to the "carnage that is occurring on the highways" as the result of drunks.
Lockyer said impoundment could be waived by a judge in cases of extreme economic hardship. Also, rental and stolen cars and commercial vehicles would be exempted.
Currently, a vehicle owned by a convicted drunk driver can be impounded during the time his license is taken away. But Lockyer argued that judges are reluctant to confiscate vehicles, especially if they are jointly owned by a spouse or someone else who may need transportation.
Lockyer argued that deaths and injuries would be reduced if drunk drivers, or anyone who lent them a vehicle, knew that they would lose use of the car for two months. The registered owner also would be liable for towing and storage costs ranging from $200 to $1,200.
He said he knew of cases where drunk drivers surrendered their licenses to a judge, got into their cars at the courthouse parking lot and drove away illegally. He said he modeled the bill after a similar system in use in some Canadian provinces where "it seems to be successful."
Lockyer said later that the proposal faced a bleak future in the Assembly because Chairman John L. Burton of the Public Safety Committee strongly opposes it. Burton frequently sides with civil libertarians on such issues. However, Lockyer said, "maybe I'll get half a loaf out of John."