Baldwin Park resident Miguel Rios, whose car was impounded in the city's tow yard after police seized the vehicle for Rios driving without a license, smiles emphatically after hearing what might so far be the best news of the year.
According to legislative measure AB 353, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, police can no longer impound a vehicle solely because the driver is unlicensed.
Under the new law, a driver stopped at a DUI checkpoint who is sober and unlicensed can call a licensed driver to take the vehicle instead of surrendering it to a tow yard for 30 days.
The measure, which took effect Jan. 1, changes the previous policy of impounding vehicles seized at DUI checkpoints from sober owners who could not produce a valid driver's license.
"I think it's quite fair, although they're going to keep the fines, but at least [police] won't take the vehicle," said Rios, a merchant who sells products in various Southern California cities.
Under California law, only residents with legal immigration status can obtain a driver's license.
"A person drives out of necessity. Maybe they should allow us to obtain a driver's license," Rios said.
Seizing vehicles for 30 days at DUI checkpoints became a controversial practice in California. Civil rights advocates claim some cities used the previous law to collect funds from undocumented residents instead of detaining drunk drivers.
Drivers without a license are charged impound fees in excess of $1,500. Motorists who don't pay the fees subject their vehicle to auction by the towing company.
An investigation conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch noted the impounding of vehicles at DUI checkpoints generated $40 million in penalties in 2009, which was distributed among the cities and towing companies.
Police officers received an estimated $30 million in overtime pay during these roundups.
In 2010, Baldwin Park police were strongly criticized for sobriety checkpoints that resulted in a greater number of vehicles seized from unlicensed drivers than in arrests of motorists driving under the influence.
Baldwin Park Policeto resemble the law that took effect Monday.
Ron Gochez, a spokesman for the Southern California Immigration Coalition, an organization that alerts drivers of checkpoints in the region, said the new law is a small step in the right direction but not enough to solve the problem.
"Cars will still be seized during routine stops," he said.
"If cities are worried about their safety, they should support a law that allows for issuance of licenses and let people take the DMV exam. That way, we are all safe," he said.
Supporters of vehicle seizures argue that unlicensed drivers are a danger on California roadways.
Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher recently told the Associated Press the new law is a step in the wrong direction.
"It's a terrible law, really disappointing," Maher said.