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Despite law, vehicles often not impounded in repeat DUI cases

On Behalf of | May 13, 2014 | Blog, Cops, Field Sobriety Tests, Traffic Stop

Law allows officers to impound vehicles of some repeat offenders

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KCRA) –The financial burden that comes with getting a vehicle out of impound is one of the ways the state of California hopes to deter drunken driving.

California law states that the car of anyone driving under the influence in the past 10 years who is pulled over on suspicion of DUI can be impounded.

Watch report: Vehicles often not impounded in repeat DUI cases

But a KCRA 3 investigation found the law isn’t used often.

KCRA 3 obtained the number of vehicles impounded for repeat DUI offenders from several Northern California police departments.

Many departments have not impounded a single car in the last four years, including Stockton, Roseville and Folsom. Modesto has impounded fewer than five.

The city of Sacramento, however, has impounded 106.

KCRA 3 also asked departments to provide data on how many repeat DUI offenders qualified for impound because they were arrested during the 10-year time period.

The Roseville Police Department, which was they only agency to provide data, said officers had arrested 20 such drivers in the last four years. None of those drivers had their cars impounded.

Other agencies, including Sacramento, Stockton and Modesto police departments, said they did not have the records available.

The Stockton Police Department, meanwhile, told KCRA 3, “Officers do not typically know about prior DUI arrests or other criminal histories when making decisions about whether to impound a vehicle.”

The majority of other departments said they either didn’t have any data, or couldn’t collect the data.

One of the biggest departments in Northern California, San Francisco, first said its officers were not allowed to impound cars at all.

“A person, once they’re convicted of a DUI, their license is suspended; we cannot take away their property,” said San Francisco Police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza. “That’s the way the law stands as it is today.”

Then Esparza said it is up to the officer.

“Of course there’s many different factors, but the key word here is that officers may … they have that discretion,” added Esparza.

The vehicle code does indeed state that an officer “may” tow the car. That means an officer can choose to impound a vehicle or not.

Impounding a vehicle of a repeat DUI offender could help prevent tragic incidents like the one that happened July 17, 2012, in Carmichael.

On that night, police said, Gemily West and her boyfriend, Harison Long-Randall, were walking their four dogs across the street when they were struck by Paul Walden, who then drove from the scene.

When officers eventually caught up with Walden, they said he failed a sobriety test.

Randall later died from injuries he suffered in the crash. The couple’s dogs also died.

After arresting Walden, police impounded his car. This allowed them to match parts from the Carmichael accident scene to his vehicle, placing him at the scene.

Walden is currently on trial, charged with murder and vehicular manslaughter. He has plead not guilty.

Prosecutors said Walden has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, including DUI convictions in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

“What we want to see is we want people to stop drinking and driving, period,” said Aaron Wade of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “If that means cars need to be towed for that to happen, then that’s what we want to see.”

MADD helped write the law that changed California’s vehicle code so repeat DUI offenders’ cars can be impounded.

“It’s just another tool in the toolbox for those officers to use to deter people from drinking and driving,” says Wade.

But even though there is a written law, it still take officers actually impounding the cars to get repeat DUI offenders off the road.

“If taking their car for five days or taking their car for 15 days helps in making them sit back and think about making that decision again, then I think it’s great,” said Officer Julie Powell of the California Highway Patrol.

The CHP is one law enforcement agency that does impound vehicles during a DUI investigation because cars and trucks can’t be left on freeways.

“We’re not going to leave vehicles on the freeway,” Powell said. “In that case, we would tow the car. Now if you’re on a city street, and the vehicle can be parked in a safe location, it’s legal to be there, and the owner doesn’t have an issue with you parking the car, you can do that.”

Powell added that they agency impounds more cars for expired driver’s licenses or suspended driver’s licenses because the penalties are often higher.

After speaking with KCRA 3 for this story, Modesto Police Department officials said they plan on reviewing the department’s policies and will consider putting the DUI vehicle code into the general orders for all traffic officers.