Stanislaus sting targets those with invalid driver's licenses

Officers could easily say, "I told you so."

Nineteen people got tickets and 16 cars were towed Thursday during an enforcement operation targeting drivers with suspended or revoked licenses who walked out of traffic court in Modesto and drove away after being told not to get behind the wheel.

"Everybody's admonished at the start of court," said Sgt. Robert Banks, a Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department employee assigned to Patterson Police Services. "They're told, 'Your driver's license is suspended. Do not drive out of this parking lot today.' They're given ample warning."

Despite the warning, said Banks, many get right into their cars after court. And, for the fourth time in 2008, officers have been there to stop them. Banks had a team of 10 motorcycle officers and six patrol cars from police departments in Modesto, Oakdale and Ceres and the Sheriff's Department.

All the drivers who appear in traffic court Thursday mornings are there because they missed a court date, or multiple court dates, and lost their license as a result.

Banks said that targeting these drivers makes roads much safer. According to Office of Traffic Safety statistics he cited, more than 50 percent of traffic collisions are caused by drivers with no license or with a suspended or revoked license. Just 10 percent of drivers fall into these categories, he said.

Research conducted by the California Department of Motor Vehicles found that, at any given time, there are more than 1 million people in California with suspended or revoked driver's licenses. Another study by the department found that as many as 75 percent of them continue to drive while their license is suspended or revoked.

California has tried for years to crack down on these drivers. In 1994, the state Legislature passed two bills allowing vehicle impoundment or forfeiture for them. Officers can impound the vehicle for 30 days whether the driver is its registered owner or not.

Two years after the bill became law, the Department of Motor Vehicles commissioned a study on its effectiveness. The study found that first-time offenders whose vehicles were impounded were 18 percent less likely to rack up more convictions than those who did not lose their car for the month.

Drivers who take care of their license issues may get their cars back sooner, Banks said. But because this population is considered high-risk, he said, keeping vehicles impounded makes the roads safer for everyone.

Banks administers an Office of Traffic Safety Grant that was given to Patterson, he said. Most of the activities, including DUI checkpoints and operations targeting speeders, must happen in Patterson. But because Patterson has no traffic court, he said, he had to find another place for the court sting.

Drivers have mixed responses when they're stopped, Banks said.

"About half just kind of say, 'Yeah, I know I was warned, the judge told me,' " he said. "Half are very angry that we're taking the car and towing it."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.