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Sonoma County's three largest law enforcement agencies have relaxed a controversial policy of seizing unlicensed drivers' vehicles for 30 days.

The practice has been criticized by groups that say it unfairly targets undocumented workers, who are barred from having a driver's license, because of the steep fines that can exceed $2,000 accrued when vehicles are impounded.

But supporters have said the policy serves a public safety purpose by taking drivers who have not earned a license off the streets.

Santa Rosa police officers on Feb. 10 quietly stopped impounding vehicles for first-time offenders.

Petaluma police this week began briefing their command staff on a similar approach.

And the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office will launch a similar policy next month.

The move follows several Bay Area police departments that now avoid impounding unlicensed drivers' vehicles, including San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

Sonoma County law enforcement leaders said they're making the change because of new interpretations of the law that gives law enforcement agencies discretion on whether to impound vehicles.

"I've got to do what's in the best interest of public safety and the law," Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said Wednesday.

"Our goal is still to get the car into the hands of safe, licensed drivers," Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said.

An unlicensed driver stopped by law enforcement for the first time now will be given the options of parking the vehicle at a safe location at the scene, releasing the vehicle to a licensed driver or having the vehicle towed.

Sheriff's deputies will take an additional step and check the history of the vehicle. If another driver has been cited for driving the same vehicle without a license, it will be impounded, Freitas said.

Freitas, Schwedhelm and Petaluma Chief Dan Fish will discuss the changes with other county agencies at a Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chief's Association meeting in March.

"My goal is to get everyone on board," Freitas said.

At a Feb. 11 DUI and driver's license checkpoint in Santa Rosa, it was the first offense for half of the people arrested without a drivers license, and their vehicles weren't towed, Schwedhelm said.

Ten people with suspended licenses and 15 people who didn't have licenses and had previous offenses all had their vehicles put into storage.

"It is a start and I admire them for doing that," said Alicia Roman, a Santa Rosa attorney who often posts herself on the street during checkpoints and warns drivers away from the area.

However, she criticized agency officials for not halting vehicle impounds for unlicensed drivers' altogether, arguing they have the discretion to do so.

"It's like they're saying, 'We understand what the law says, but we're only going to give you a little bit and we hope you're satisfied with it,' " Roman said. "No, I'm not satisfied with that."

West county Supervisor Efren Carrillo commended the sheriff's efforts to weigh public safety concerns with calls from community leaders to stop the impounds.

"From a human side, I think he's recognized that the current impound policy is somewhat heavy-handed and, some would say, unfair," Carillo said.

Others warn, however, that giving a pass to first-time offenders sends the wrong message to drivers.

"What that means is that anyone that knows this is thinking, 'I have a get-out-of-jail card until they catch me one time,'" said Gene Crozat, owner of Santa Rosa's G&C Auto Body and G&C Towing.

Only time will tell whether giving first-time offenders a warning will make the streets more dangerous, Fish said.

"This shift in policy will be its own evidence, so to speak," Fish said. "A year from now, or two years from now, we'll be able to look at the statistics and know if it's affected safety."

Freitas, Schwedhelm and Fish said they're following a statewide movement to adopt new interpretations of both federal and state legal opinions on when law enforcement officers should seize vehicles.

The practice of automatically impounding vehicles when the drivers have suspended licenses or no licenses doesn't reflect how the law treats the two different offenses, Freitas said. Drivers with suspended licenses face steeper fines and punishments under the law than drivers who have no prior offense but have no license.

"It's a fairness issue," Freitas said. "Suspended-license drivers and unlicensed drivers aren't treated the same, philosophically, in court."

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com

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