The Los Angeles Police Commission today approved a new policy for impounding the vehicles of unlicensed drivers, allowing offenders who have valid identification, car registration and proof of insurance to avoid a mandatory 30-day impound.
Under the policy, which was approved on a 4-1 vote, drivers who are at fault in an accident, or have prior convictions for driving unlicensed, will not qualify for a shortened impound.
Police Chief Charlie Beck, who proposed the policy with the backing of immigrants' rights groups and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said the policy change was an attempt to eliminate confusion by officers in the field over two conflicting laws regarding when to impound a vehicle and for how long.
The LAPD impounded about 30,000 cars last year. About 85 percent of those were for violations of a state vehicle code that mandates a 30-day impound.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley sent a letter to the commission today stating that the policy violates state law and would make the
city vulnerable to lawsuits.
A Feb. 11 memo by the state Legislative Council, which provides legal
advice to state legislators, also questioned its legality.
But a deputy to City Attorney Carmen Trutanich told the commission that the city's top prosecutor believes the proposed policy change is legal.
"It is legal," Deputy City Attorney Heather Aubrey told the commissioners during a brief exchange on the subject. "Both sections (of the state vehicle code) are discretionary impound statutes. Both are legally available to the department.
During a news conference following the vote, Beck refuted criticism that the change encourages illegal immigrants to drive on city streets.
"This is not a free pass," Beck said, adding that all drivers will be cited for infractions whether their vehicles are impounded or not and regardless of how long. "This is just an attempt to get safer drivers in Los Angeles and an attempt to recognize that this (mandatory 30-day impound) is an extreme hardship on some individuals," Beck said. "If the people that are suffering those hardships do the right thing, get insurance, they have ID, they don't cause an accident, then their car will be impounded for less time."
When asked about Cooley's letter, Beck responded, "The district attorney is not my attorney."
Commissioner Alan Skobin cast the lone dissenting vote. Citing a recent AAA study, Skobin said unlicensed drivers are involved in 5 percent of fatal accidents and are nine times more likely to be involved in a hit-and-run than licensed drivers.
"What that means is there's a strong public safety interest in keeping the vehicles of the unlicensed driver off the streets," Skobin said.
The commission did tweak Beck's plan slightly to also ban unlicensed drivers who have existing warrants for traffic violations from being able to get shorter impound times.
The vote was opposed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing the department's more than 9,000 officers.
"The rank-and-file is not happy," LAPPL President Tyler Izen said. "They think there are laws on the books that unlicensed drivers should have their cars impounded for 30 days."
Izen said he doubts the new policy will increase the number of unlicensed drivers who get insurance.
"It remains a public safety issue for us," he said.
The Police League filed a formal complaint last week with the department's employee relations administrator, which kept the door open for the union to sue in a bid to block the policy. Izen did not rule out a lawsuit, but said the union's board of directors would discuss the issue and the union's options.
The City Council can use its authority to overrule the commission's actions by a two-thirds majority vote by March 9.
City Councilman Mitch Englander, who has been an outspoken critic of changing the department's impound policy, was not immediately available for comment.
Meanwhile, Beck reiterated his opinion today that the state should provide an alternate driver's license to undocumented immigrants that would prove that they have passed physical and written tests to drive.
"I think that makes a lot of sense," Beck said. "Why wouldn't we want to ensure that they have personal responsibility when they operate motor vehicles, that they have the right training? That will make the road safer."
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who is running for City Council, announced plans last week to introduce a bill to create a driver's license category for illegal immigrants. Cedillo has introduced similar bills before that were vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
—City News Service