Austin police seek to target unlicensed drivers
By Katie Hall – American-Statesman Staff
Updated: 5:17 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016 | Posted: 10:36 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3, 2016
Under a proposed ordinance, Austin police could tow a vehicle if the driver doesn’t have a valid license.
A commission that advises the Austin City Council is split on the idea.
Austin police officials are seeking to amend city traffic regulations to allow officers to impound a vehicle, without necessarily making an arrest, if the driver is on the road without a license or with a suspended one.
Austin police presented the proposal during the Public Safety Commission’s monthly meeting Monday. The commission’s vote for the proposal was 5-5; since the majority of commissioners didn’t support the measure, the commission will not recommend the Austin City Council to adopt it. However, the City Council will likely still take up the issue in October or November, Austin police Chief of Staff Brian Manley said.
While the scope of the proposed revision is broad, Manley said the Police Department policy would only allow officers to impound a vehicle for one of the following reasons: a person without a driver’s license was involved in a crash; a person without a driver’s license was stopped for a traffic violation and has been convicted of two prior moving violations; or a person without a driver’s license was stopped for a traffic violation and is driving with a license that has been suspended for drug offenses, driving while intoxicated, or for having committed multiple violations.
Even if the driver isn’t the owner, officers would still impound the vehicle, Manley said. However, the law would not apply to people with expired licenses.
“There are a significant number of drivers that are involved in serious-injury and fatality collisions that are either without a license or have had their license suspended,” Manley said. Taking away their vehicles takes away the instrument that causes some of these injuries and deaths, he said.
From 2012 to 2016, an average of 16 percent of people involved in Austin crashes had no license or an invalid license; 19 percent of injury crashes involved a person who met that criteria; and 28 percent of fatalities involved a person who met that criteria, Manley said.
In 2015, Austin police issued 3,896 citations for driving without a valid license, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.
The measure was recommended earlier this year by Vision Zero, a city task force with the mission of reducing traffic fatalities in Austin.
Commission Vice Chair Daniela Nunez made it clear Monday that she didn’t support the proposal.
“There are many people in our community who are not eligible to get driver’s licenses because of broken federal immigration policy,” Nunez said. “These people still have to drive. They still have to take their kids to school… If something doesn’t warrant arrest, it shouldn’t be worthy of impounding.”
Commission Chair Rebecca Webber, who also voted against the proposal, said she would have liked to know how many of the people without valid licenses involved in crashes last year would have met the criteria for having their car towed under the proposed law. Without that data, Webber said she can’t determine if the law is worth the adversity it would cause people.
“Is this just another hardship on people in a cycle of poverty?” Webber said.
In Austin, tow companies will charge people $218.30 if they pick up their vehicles on the first day, Austin police officials said. It costs an additional $21.65 for every extra day the vehicle is in storage. The vehicle can be auctioned off after 45 days.
Two tow companies that Austin police use, Southside Towing and Austex Towing, said they do not offer payment plans.
Back in February, the Public Safety Commission voted 5-2 in favor of the proposal (three members were absent). Members picked this idea and four others out of 100 recommendations that the Vision Zero task force made.
Austin police used to impound cars after officers stopped a driver with no license or a suspended one, police officials said. However, this measure was ended to keep non-violent offenders out of jail. The new law would allow police to impound cars without arresting the driver.