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File: Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck talks to members of the media in front of City Hall in downtown in the early hours of November 30, 2011 in Los Angeles.
After weeks of stormy debate in public meetings and on conservative talk radio, the Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday voted 4-1 to approve a policy that ends the practice of automatically impounding the cars of unlicensed undocumented immigrants for 30 days.
Chief Charlie Beck, who proposed the policy, said it's a more "humane" one for undocumented immigrants who are unable to obtain licenses under state law. He said 30-day impounds had unfairly cost otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrant drivers thousands of dollars in fees.
"This is an extreme hardship on many people," Beck said of a policy that immigrant rights advocates have said results in residents losing their cars because they can't afford the impound costs.
Under the new policy, officers will use a more lenient state impound law if the unlicensed driver has a valid ID, car registration, proof of insurance, is not at fault in an accident and has no previous misdemeanor conviction for driving without a license. In addition, the driver must have no outstanding arrest warrants or have failed to appear for a court date in connection with driving without a license.
Unlicensed undocumented immigrants will still have their car impounded, but they can have a licensed driver pick it up immediately.
Police Commissioner John Mack supported the policy "to show some compassion. We're talking about human beings."
The lone dissenter was Commissioner Alan Skobin, who said cars should still be held for 30 days.
"I don't think we can close our eyes and pretend that it's OK to drive without a driver's license. It's not," Skobin said. He cited one study that found unlicensed drivers are nine times more likely to be involved in a hit-and-run accident.
"The longer that car is held, the less likely that person will be involved in a traffic collision."
Chief Beck has argued the policy will result in safer streets because undocumented immigrant drivers will be more likely to get their cars registered, obtain insurance and not leave the scene of an accident.
The union that represents rank-and-file officers disagreed. Union officials believe the policy will make the streets less safe, and have held out the option of suing to stop it.
Commissioners discussed a state Legislative Counsel opinion that officers are required to use the 30-day impound law when they stop unlicensed drivers. The panel chose to follow the advice of the city attorney who opined police have discretion.
The more lenient policy has stirred passions on both sides of the immigration debate, and that passion showed at the police commission hearing.
"Those of us who are legally here, who pay taxes, it's a slap in the face," Scott Egebjerg of the San Fernando Valley said.
Antonio Bernabe of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights said the new policy would lift a burden for undocumented immigrant families who need their cars.
"Kids, they need their parents to take them to the school, to the hospital, whatever is needed for the family — like every other family in Los Angeles," Bernabe said. "We applaud your initiative."
The City Council has the option of rejecting the new policy within five meetings. Otherwise, Chief Beck said it will take effect within a few weeks.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supports the new policy.
This story has been updated.