Unfair at Any Speed: California Law Snares Innocent Car Owners
Columnist Hector Tobar has a compelling piece in today's L.A. Times, a kind of misdemeanor Les Miserables involving one of those laws passed to protect the public but which sometimes seems like a spiteful attack on common sense. Tobar's story follows the plight of Sharon Warmack, who went to get a tooth pulled in Redondo Beach figuring she'd skip some of the anesthesia to cut medical costs. The pain was too much, though and she apparently asked for more pain killer -- and later had to call her boyfriend to pick her up. He did, but when he returned to the dentist's to get her car he was stopped by police, to whom he admitted his driver's license had been suspended for a traffic infraction. Warmack's car was impounded for 30 days under California's Safe Streets Act of 1994 -- and released only after she paid a hefty fine.
Well, maybe $1397 isn't hefty for many of the people who welcomed this law, but this amount can be the tipping point of disaster for many poor and low-income people. Tobar's column notes that Warmack exercised her right of appeal, but the appeal consisted of her telling her story to a cop who just shrugged and promptly denied her claim. That's it, end of the line -- even though in San Francisco, at least, car owners in Warmack's position have the right to an additional "supervisor's appeal," and even if this goes against the car owner, he or she has the right to file a claim with the city attorney against the City of San Francisco.
When Tobar asked Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb about the fairness of this "process," all Webb could do was offer a great Boy Scout tip -- you should always ask if a person has a valid license before handing over your keys to them. Warmack, in fact, says she had no idea her boyfriend's license was suspended and had no reason to ask such a question.
The Safe Streets Act was intended to keep drunks and law-breakers out of their cars, but, like many legislative attempts at punitive social engineering, such as the Three Strikes law, it had unforeseen consequences. The intention behind Safe Streets may be sound, but some of the law's details inflict suffering on innocent people and need fixing. That's got about as much chance, however, as altering Three Strikes -- since the Safe Streets Act's passage, state legislators and municipalities have only tried to make it stricter.