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Alviso v. Sonoma County Sheriff's Dep't

June 30, 2010


(Sonoma County Super. Ct. No. SCV242522), Honorable Mark Tansil.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Siggins, J.


Does a law that authorizes the 30-day impoundment of a vehicle driven on a revoked or suspended license violate the vehicle owner's constitutional rights? Appellant David Alviso, whose car was impounded pursuant to Vehicle Code sections 14602.6 and 22852, contends the statutory impoundment scheme violates state and federal constitutional principals of equal protection, due process, and freedom from unreasonable seizures. The trial court rejected these claims. So do we.


The facts are undisputed. A Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff pulled Alviso over and discovered he was driving while his license was suspended due to his previous conviction for driving while intoxicated. The basis for the stop is uncontested. Alviso was arrested for driving on a suspended license and his car was impounded pursuant to Vehicle Code section 14602.6.*fn1

Alviso was provided timely written notice within two days of his right to request an administrative hearing to challenge the validity of the impoundment, but made no request. His car therefore remained impounded for 30 days. The amount of towing charges, administrative fees and storage costs Alviso was required to pay to secure release of his car exceeded its value, so he elected not to recover it.

Based upon these events, Alviso filed a class action complaint for declaratory, injunctive and monetary relief against the Attorney General, Sonoma County and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department (the County defendants), and ABC towing. The complaint alleged that section 14602.6 violates the equal protection provisions of the federal and state Constitutions because it authorizes a 30-day vehicle impoundment for drivers whose licenses are suspended for some, but not all, Vehicle Code violations, without a rational basis for treating the groups of drivers differently. It also alleged the 30-day impoundment without a warrant, court order or post-seizure judicial review violates the unlawful seizure provisions of both state and federal Constitutions. Based on his alleged standing both as an aggrieved party and as a taxpayer pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 526a, Alviso sought a judicial declaration that sections 14602.6 and 22852 are unconstitutional on their face and as applied, and injunctive relief enjoining enforcement of section 14602.6 and requiring ABC Towing to release his car or refrain from selling it pending resolution of the lawsuit. He also sought damages against the County defendants.

The Attorney General demurred to the complaint and opposed Alviso's motion for preliminary injunction.*fn2 The superior court declined to issue a preliminary injunction on the grounds that Alviso had not shown a threat of irreparable harm; the action was not likely to succeed on the merits; and injunctive relief is not available to a taxpayer in a suit brought under Code of Civil Procedure section 526a. The court overruled the demurrer because it was a procedurally inappropriate method for disposing of a complaint for declaratory relief, but observed that the Attorney General had "made many persuasive legal arguments regarding the constitutionality of the assailed laws" and invited the Attorney General to move for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings.

In light of the court's views on Alviso's constitutional arguments, the parties stipulated that a judgment could be entered against Alviso. Pursuant to that stipulation, the court entered judgment declaring sections 14602.6 and 22852 to be valid on their face and as applied. With respect to Alviso's equal protection challenges, the court concluded the distinctions drawn by the Legislature for license suspension offenses that give rise to a 30-day impound and those that do not are supported by a rational basis because the suspensions that result in the impound represent more serious violations of the Vehicle Code, and thus support the Legislature's goal of reducing traffic accidents. The court also found any imperfection in the statutory classifications did not make the statute invalid. Finally, the court rejected Alviso's argument that sections 14602.6 and 22852 violate constitutional prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures because the officer had probable cause to seize Alviso's car; the seizure was proper under the community caretaking doctrine; and the Fourth Amendment does not require a post-seizure court hearing.

Pursuant to stipulation, the court deemed the complaint amended to include a cause of action seeking a declaration that the administrative hearing procedures provided in section 22852 violate due process. The court rejected this claim on the ground that the impoundment scheme provided in sections 14602.6 and 22852 is procedurally similar to other vehicle impound schemes that have been approved by the courts. Finally, the court found Alviso was not entitled to damages.

Alviso filed a timely appeal from the stipulated judgment.


I. Preliminary Considerations

Whether a statute is challenged facially or as applied, when the facts are not disputed, the determination of its constitutionality is a question of law that we review de novo. (Samples v. Brown (2007) 146 Cal.App.4th 787, 799 [facial challenge]; Starving Students, Inc. v. Department ...

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