An article in today’s SF Chronicle talks about a California bill to protect unlicensed drivers from arrest. I was reading this article while eating lunch. It actually does more than that (details below), and it touches on some interesting questions.
The bill relates to DUI checkpoints. In the past, if a driver was stopped and they did not have their physical license on them, the car they were driving would be impounded and the driver arrested. There are many who felt this was the right thing to do, under the assumption that an unlicensed driver must be an illegal immigrant. However, there are problems with this as well: if the car is registered, it is clearly unlawful search and seizure of property–that is, the property of the registered owner of the vehicle. Further, being an unlicensed driver is typically not an arrestable crime: there are many reasons people might be driving without their license being physically there. Lastly, cities were starting to use this as a revenue source.
The new bill recognizes the importance of the car in California. Under the bill, the law enforcement officials will attempt to contact the registered owner of the vehicle, and see if an authorized representative can pick it up. The driver will be cited, not arrested.
The underlying question I found interesting was whether one must be a legal resident in order to get a drivers license? There are numerous benefits to society to having licensed drivers: they have to have demonstrated a particular level of training, and have to demonstrably have insurance. Preventing a class of people from obtaining a license does not mean those people will not drive–it only means we potentially have people who don’t know California’s rules and have current insurance on the road. That’s a risk to all. On the other hand, driving is a privilege and processing licenses does cost the state money. How do we balance the benefit to the public with the cost of providing a state service to someone who doesn’t pay taxes? It’s not a black and white question.