Judge clears the way for a lawsuit challenging LAPD's vehicle impound policy

A Los Angeles judge has turned down a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the LAPD's new vehicle impound policy.
A Los Angeles judge has turned down a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the LAPD's new vehicle impound policy.

The Los Angeles police officers union and a conservative government watchdog group won their first legal step in challenging the city’s new policy on vehicle impounds.

L.A. Superior Court Judge Terry Green overruled a motion Friday that would have essentially dismissed the case against the city.

The ruling allows the lawsuit filed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League and Judicial Watch to move forward.

The California Vehicle Code requires that police impound an unlicensed driver's car for 30 days. The new LAPD impound policy states an officer can release that 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.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League argues that the LAPD’s impound directive, Special Order 7, implemented in April, puts officers in a legal bind because it contradicts the state vehicle code.

“It’s a legislative policy choice that officers should have that discretion,” said Paul Orfanedes, attorney for Judicial Watch. “We think more importantly, that it sends a strong message to deter people from driving without licenses.”

Judicial Watch also filed a lawsuit against the city, which was eventually merged with the police union’s suit. The conservative watchdog group puts an immigration spin on the issue, saying it doesn’t want taxpayer money spent on implementing the policy.

Judge Green said he was reluctant to decide the case so early in the legal process. He added he believes there are some “facial inconsistencies” between LAPD’s impound policy and the state’s vehicle codes.  

“This is an onion that has many, many layers,” he said.

The city argues that Special Order 7 offers guidelines to officers. The state attorney general’s office concluded in May that the city’s impound policy is legal because local agencies may adapt their own standards.

“There’s case law on point that says cities can pass policies to guide the discretion of officers,” said Lucero Chavez, attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

ACLU-SC joined the case to defend the city on behalf of CHIRLA and LA Voice, two immigration rights groups. The groups protested that the state’s 30-day impound rule, claiming it disproportionately affected illegal immigrants.

“At the end of the day seizures still have to be reasonable,” said Chavez. “Local jurisdictions still have the discretion to implement policies consistent with the Fourth Amendment and the vehicle code.”

The judge directed the two sides to file motions for future hearings and set a trial date for September. The city of Los Angeles also has 30 days to ask another judge for a second opinion.