The bill, HB119, would allow police to arrest any suspected driver who doesn’t show a license.
Critics say the wording of the bill is far too broad. But the bill’s sponsor said he’s filling a gap in the powers granted to police officers.
“This is simple,” said Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville. “Right now, if you’re in an accident and you’re found unconscious behind the wheel of a car and you don’t have a license, you can’t be arrested because the officer has to see you driving (without a license) to arrest you.”
The bill, as currently worded, doesn’t specify that an accident scene is the only place an officer can ask to see someone’s driver license. It requires only that the officer have “reasonable cause to believe that the individual was driving” without a license.
Shay Farley, legal director for the Montgomery-based nonprofit Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, says that wording would allow police to demand a license from almost anyone, almost anywhere.
For example, any adult leaving a church service, she noted, could be presumed to have driven there.
“I have reasonable cause if I see you at someone else’s home, and I know that your car is parked outside,” she said. “This wording is broad in a way that is very problematic.”
Rich disagrees with that interpretation of the wording. When The Star presented him with a similar scenario — police demanding driver licenses from moviegoers at a theater — Rich said the scenario defied common sense.
“Now you’re just being stupid,” he said. “You’re making this way too complicated.”
Despite that rhetoric, both sides in the debate appear to be working on a revision that would make the bill clearer. Rich said he plans to talk to the attorney general to hammer out any needed changes. Farley said she planned to sit down with district attorneys and supporters of the bill to work on compromise wording as well.
Both Farley and Rich said they expected the bill to be modified in committee Tuesday.
“If it’s accidents they’re concerned about, they need to put that in the bill,” Farley said. “That would probably add only seven words.”
Rich says unlicensed drivers pose a significant problem in his district. Twenty-one percent of the Albertville population is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Rich claims that many of those residents are in the U.S. illegally.
“What we’ve got here in northeast Alabama is, we’ve got accidents where a lot of illegals are standing around on the scene when police arrive,” he said. “They get out and run, or they tell the officer someone else is driving.”
Allison Neal, legal director for the Alabama branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill could have an effect much different from its stated purpose.
“This would allow police to stop people (on foot) just so they can run licenses and check immigration status,” Neal said.
Rich is also the sponsor of HB120, a bill that would make sure people suspected of driving without a license are taken into custody. The bill requires police to transport those suspects to the nearest magistrate for a hearing and requires police to determine the immigration status of anyone picked up for driving without a license.
Farley said the requirement of a magistrate’s hearing would ensure that people arrested under the bill would spend up to 48 hours in police custody — something rare for traffic violators. An arrest of that sort could become a lingering problem even for people who are later found not guilty, she said.
“Whenever you apply for a loan or a job, they ask if you’ve ever been arrested,” she noted.
Star assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.