File photo: A DWI Checkpoint in East Haven, Connecticut
In a move closely watched by other Southern California law enforcement agencies, LAPD Chief Chalie Beck has ordered his officers end the practice of immediately seizing the cars of undocumented immigrants who are stopped at sobriety checkpoints. The move comes amid concerns that police were unfairly targeting those drivers.
The news came as a relief for Maria Ranjel of Boyle Heights. Her husband and three sons are undocumented immigrants who drive all the time, even though they're ineligible to apply for drivers licenses in California.
“We know well that it’s against the law to drive without a license but it’s just because of need that we do it – to take our kids to and from school, to go to and from the market," Ranjel said through a translator. "It’s just too hard to take the bus.”
Ranjel said police repeatedly have stopped her husband and sons at sobriety checkpoints, and impounded their cars. It’s cost the family thousands of dollars.
She is part of an activist group called L.A. Voice that’s been lobbying police to ease their impound policies. Ranjel was elated LAPD Chief Charlie Beck agreed.
“I wanted to shout with joy at the news. It’s just good news for the Latino community."
Under the LAPD’s new policy, officers will give unlicensed illegal immigrants “reasonable time” to find someone else to drive their car home. It only applies at sobriety checkpoints and only if the driver isn’t drunk or otherwise wanted by police.
Chief Beck said “it’s the right thing to do.”
“The sad truth is that the people that were most impacted by this law were the people that could afford it the least – generally hardworking folks who are trying to make a life for themselves in the city of Los Angeles."
Beck said last year, officers working sobriety checkpoints impounded about 1,000 cars driven by undocumented immigrants who were not intoxicated or wanted by police. Overall, the LAPD impounded nearly 70,000 vehicles last year, but Beck said he’s not yet ready to extend the more lenient policy beyond the checkpoints.
He defended himself against critics who said his policy promotes illegal immigration.
“I rigorously enforce the law," the chief said. "The law gives me the option whether or not I impound that vehicle for 30 days. I am exercising that option because of the adverse impact of this law.”
The chief said unlicensed U.S. citizens and legal residents stopped at checkpoints will also be allowed
“reasonable time” to find someone else to drive their car home.
Amid an increasingly anti-immigrant political environment in the U.S., Mexican Consul General Juan Carlos Mendoza praised the new policy.
"We really support this initiative by Chief Beck because its in favor of the Latino community."
The consul general of Guatemala also attended the news conference and praised Beck.
San Francisco and a handful of other California cities have similar policies. Activists say they’re lobbying the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to follow the LAPD’s lead.