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Los Angeles judge throws out LAPD's vehicle impound policy for unlicensed drivers

A impounded vehicle with a boot is seen in a tow yard.
A impounded vehicle with a boot is seen in a tow yard.
Photo by Kurt Nordstrom via Flickr Creative Commons

A Superior Court judge Monday struck down the Los Angeles Police Department’s relaxed vehicle impound policy that allows unlicensed drivers to avoid a 30-day impound.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Green said the LAPD’s policy contradicts or modifies existing state vehicle law.

“This is sort of a game changer,” Green said.

California's vehicle code states a police officer shall impound a vehicle belonging to an unlicensed driver and it will be held for 30 days.

The LAPD last year in April implemented Special Order 7 that states an officer may release an insured vehicle to another licensed driver. It also allows unlicensed drivers to retrieve their cars from the city’s tow yard the next day, without having to wait a full month. Supporters of the policy say it gives undocumented immigrants without driver's licenses the opportunity to retrieve their vehicles.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League filed a lawsuit challenging the policy. It argues that the LAPD’s impound directive puts officers in a legal bind because it contradicts the state vehicle code, which gives field officers the discretion to impound vehicles or not.

"The LAPPL felt strongly that it was unreasonable and unacceptable to place our membership in this position and that public safety suffered because of this Special Order," said police union president Tyler Izen in a statement about Monday's ruling. 

Joining their suit is the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch that argues the directive waters down punishment for unlicensed drivers.

“What it really has done is destroy the uniformity of the deterrent effect that the legislature wanted when it passed the statute,” said Paul Orfanedes, attorney for Judicial Watch.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and immigrants rights group LA Voice PICO joined the city of Los Angeles to defend the police department’s impound policy claiming it disproportionately affected undocumented immigrants.

ACLU staff attorney Michael Kaufman argued in court that by striking down Special Order 7, the police chief would lose his rule-making powers to set guidelines at LAPD.  

“He will be stripped of any ability to set policy,” Kaufman said.

In a 20-minute discussion about his decision, Judge Green said LAPD’s impound policy would pose real world problems. He said the directive does much more than offer training or guidelines for officers in the field.

“Why not take this to the legislature,” Green asked attorneys representing the city and the civil rights groups. “Then we’d have a public debate.”

Though the judge ruled for the plaintiffs, it does not immediately put an end to LAPD’s impound policy. He stayed the ruling to allow LAPD's attorneys an opportunity to appeal the decision.