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House OKs crackdown on illegal immigrant drivers

ATLANTA - Police officers could seize vehicles at an accident scene or traffic stop if they suspect the driver is an illegal immigrant under legislation the House passed Thursday.

The bill, approved 104-51 and which now goes to the Senate, would give law enforcement agencies the same power to impound vehicles involved in a crime that they already have when making drug arrests.

Illegal immigrants without driver's licenses who get into a crash don't have insurance, said Rep. James Mills, the bill's chief sponsor. As a result, the innocent drivers they hit get stuck with higher insurance bills, he said.

"If we can take some of these people off the roads, we'll be helping to protect our legal citizens," said Mills, R-Gainesville.

But Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, said the bill could violate the constitutional rights of legal residents.

She said the measure wouldn't require police to establish "probable cause" that a crime has occurred before impounding a vehicle at a traffic stop.

But Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill, said such constitutional concerns are moot when it comes to illegal immigrants.

"Is not the Georgia and the U.S. Constitution for United States citizens?" he asked.

But Benfield, a lawyer, said courts have held that the legal protections afforded by the Constitution apply to everyone in the country, not just to legal residents.

Benfield said Mills' legislation also would encourage racial profiling.

"People could be pulled over because they look like they might not be a U.S. citizen," she said.

As has been the case each time the General Assembly has taken up legislation targeting illegal immigrants, opponents also argued that immigration is a federal issue.

"Shouldn't the federal government know whether somebody entered this country legally or illegally?" asked Rep. Earnest "Coach" Williams, D-Avondale Estates. "That's their job."

But Mills said Congress has dropped the ball on enforcing U.S. immigration laws.

"Our federal government has failed to deal with the matter at the border," he said.