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Legality of LAPD’s car impound policy under review

An impounded car.
An impounded car.

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Lawmakers are questioning the legality of a proposal to change impound rules on unlicensed drivers in Los Angeles.

Police Chief Charlie Beck had been seeking a more relaxed approach for unlicensed drivers. For them, Beck wants to allow the vehicle’s owner to retrieve it as soon as the next day, instead of waiting for the mandated 30-day hold, which can lead to fees of over $1,000. Beck says reducing impound numbers would improve public safety and provide incentives for offenders to obtain vehicle insurance. He specified that this policy would only apply to people who have never had a California license, excluding those who have had their licenses suspended or revoked.

Beck’s hopes that the law would take effect soon, however, have been held back by a nonpartisan state agency that issued a report examining the proposal's legitimacy. The report concluded that an officer is required by law to invoke a 30-day hold on an impounded vehicle whose driver has never been licensed.

According Ira Melman, media director of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, the impound law should remain as is. To Melman, easing the harshness of car impounding policies will cause issues of road safety.

“You catch people driving without a license, there has to be meaningful consequences. That's the way we enforce most laws, that's why most people, we see the highway patrol, we take our foot off the gas, because we know there are going to be meaningful consequences when they're caught,” he said.

Some immigration activists and the ACLU are angered by the hold on impound reform; they say it’s unfair to undocumented immigrants who cannot receive licenses in California. Los Angeles Civil Rights and Criminal Defense Attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker said that the fines accrued from citations are too much of an economic toll on undocumented drivers.

“When your car is impounded for 30 days and you go back to pick it up with a licensed driver, you're paying about $1,500. Then you've been cited into traffic court for a moving violation or the reason you were stopped, and also driving without a license,” she said. “You're paying off a ticket over $500, a huge problem economically for folks. I don't believe the person is going to go back and drive.”

Barker added that allowing everyone to get a license would solve public safety issues. “Prior to 1994, anyone, regardless of legal status, could get a driver’s license and that's great. That was good for public safety. People had to pass a road test and a written test,” she said.

But Melman said that impounding reform would weaken immigration laws, and state and local governments should not be involved in federal issues.

“The irony here is that [undocumented drivers] lose the ability to get to jobs that it's illegal for them to have in the first place. Under federal law, they are barred from workng here in the United States. And so what Los Angeles is saying is, ‘We are going to try and make it more convenient for you to go on violating federal immigration law.’”

To Melman, the driver’s license symbolizes more than someone’s ability to navigate the road. “What document do you use when you get on an airplane? What document do you use when you go into a federal building?” he said. “People have to be able to demonstrate that they are legal residents of the United States. Otherwise, all we're doing is validating perhaps the false identifications that people come into the DMV with.”


What are the conclusions of the report? Why the delay? Is Beck’s proposal possibly illegal? How does Los Angeles compare to other cities with reformed impound rules?


Ira Melman, media director of FAIR, the Federation of American Immigration Reform

Cynthia Anderson-Barker, Civil Rights and Criminal Defense Attorney in Los Angeles and Member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)