Unlicensed drivers a growing concern for law enforcement | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Unlicensed drivers a growing concern for law enforcement

Photo illustration by Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune/ According to AAA, those who drive without a license are "believed to be the most dangerous drivers on the road."

A few years ago, Sgt. Tom Mezzetta pulled over a vehicle whose owner was drunk in a passenger seat. The driver was worse and described by Mezzetta as “extremely drunk.”

“The owner said that he allowed his friend to drive despite the fact that he knew his friend had been drinking because his license was suspended and he didn’t want to get in trouble,” Mezzetta wrote in an e-mail.

Drivers who are unlicensed or have their license suspended are a common discovery for authorities who make traffic stops in South Shore.

Mezzetta, a sergeant with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, thought two or three arrests are made each week on people who don’t have a valid driver’s license.

“Most often, the fact that the driver is unlicensed is learned after the fact, usually after having been stopped for some other violation,” he stated. “Sometimes the unlicensed driver is reported by someone who knows they don’t have a (driver’s license).”

Last month in El Dorado County Superior Court, Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury chided a man caught driving on a suspended license. The man said he needed to be behind the wheel because his girlfriend was having an asthma attack.

Kingsbury told the man that studies show those with a suspended license are more likely to get caught by law enforcement than those with licenses who are pulled over for other kinds of violations.

According to AAA, those who drive behind the wheel and don’t have a license are “believed to be the most dangerous drivers on the road” and at least one unlicensed driver is involved in 20 percent of fatal crashes.

Unlicensed drivers are different than those who have their license suspended. Those who are not licensed either failed a driver’s test or are unable to get one. Reasons for suspended licenses range from having a drunken driving charge or traffic violation fines that aren’t paid.

Unlicensed drivers, who are usually uninsured, are known to commit hit-and-run accidents, South Lake Tahoe police Lt. Terry Daniels said.

“They tend to flee the scene more often,” Daniels said.

The number of police encounters with unlicensed drivers and those with suspended licenses per month are more than 30, statistics show. In 2004, 384 drivers were found without a license while 58 had suspended licenses, according to the police department.

In 2005, 339 drivers had no license; 41 were on a suspended status.

So far this year, 51 drivers have been caught behind the wheel without a license. Last month a driver with a suspended license ran into the woods to escape authorities after his Ford sedan spun and hit a guardrail on Kingsbury Grade on Feb. 14, a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy reported.

The man, Jacob Brown, 25 from Visalia, Calif., was released from prison earlier that day, the deputy reported. Armed with a shotgun retrieved from a patrol car, law enforcement officials followed footprints in the snow before Brown appeared with his arms over his head, the deputy reported.

Brown was arrested on charges including suspicion of drunken driving with one prior incident, obstructing an officer and driving with a suspended license.

Unlicensed drivers are usually cited and released if there are no other charges, Mezzetta said. In California, unlicensed drivers are given a misdemeanor, said California Highway Patrol officer Jeff Gardner.

Typically cars are taken to a tow yard where they are kept until picked up. Money is needed to retrieve the car from an impound yard where daily fees and the cost of towing the vehicle can make a bill more than $1,000 if the vehicle was impounded for a month.

Welcome’s Auto Body and Towing charges $40 per day for impounding a car, said an employee. One or two cars arrive to the yard per week after a driver is found unlicensed in a traffic stop.

Gardner said ’98 percent of the time” cars are towed when a driver is found unlicensed. The practice shields authorities from lawsuits if the driver ends up crashing the car after being pulled over, Gardner said.

“That’s one of the reasons why we take more cars than we let go,” he said.

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