LAPD Lightens Fees and Regulations on Impounds From Unlicensed Drivers

towtruck2-300x200.jpgUnder its [new] terms, unlicensed drivers who meet several requirements — including having auto insurance, valid identification and no previous citations for unlicensed driving — will still have their cars impounded but no longer face a 30-day hold, with fines that now often exceed $1,200.

Calling it an act of “humanity” and “compassion” toward the city’s illegal immigrants, the Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday approved a controversial plan to limit the cases in which police officers impound vehicles of drivers operating without a license.

The commission made the move despite warnings from Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and state lawyers that the new impound policy is illegal.

It marks a victory for immigration-rights advocates as well as Police Chief Charlie Beck, who has championed the new policy despite sharp criticism at public meetings, on talk radio and by some law enforcement officials.

The shift is significant in a city with a large illegal immigrant population. For decades, the Los Angeles Police Departmenthas been trying to convince immigrants that police are not the enemy, and Beck said he hopes the new rules will improve relations and encourage undocumented immigrants to cooperate with police investigations.

The new policy will apply to unlicensed drivers who are pulled over for a variety of minor traffic infractions, ranging from a broken tail light to speeding.

Under its terms, unlicensed drivers who meet several requirements — including having auto insurance, valid identification and no previous citations for unlicensed driving — will still have their cars impounded but no longer face a 30-day hold, with fines that now often exceed $1,200.

The new rules will permit drivers to immediately collect their vehicles from impound as long as they are the registered owner and come with a licensed driver. They would pay the regular storage fee of $38.50 per day plus a one-time fee of $228.

Officers will be instructed to forgo impounding a vehicle altogether in some cases if a licensed driver is in the car or able to arrive “immediately.”

Drivers who do not satisfy the requirements, or who are caught driving on revoked or suspended licenses, will have their vehicles held for the 30 days.

Beck expects the new rules will go into effect in a few weeks, after officers are given training at roll call meetings.

“I am doing this for many reasons,” Beck said. “It will improve responsible behavior among unlicensed drivers. But it is also a fairness issue for people who don’t have the opportunity to get licenses. And it is a chance to build ties with a community that feels marginalized and that my officers have a lot of contact with. It is good to show some sense of understanding of their plight.”

The old policy, Beck said, was vague and gave officers little direction on whether to impound a vehicle and, if they opted to do so, if they should impose the 30-day hold. The result has been that drivers caught in similar scenarios have been treated inconsistently.

Since immigrants who are in the country illegally are not allowed to receive licenses in California, they are widely presumed to make up the bulk of people driving in the state without licenses.

Like Beck, some commissioners said the new policy was a fair response to the undeniable reality that in Los Angeles there are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and many of them drive.

“The truth of the matter is that they’re here and we need to deal with this issue in a way that is practical and which shows some humanity,” said Commissioner Debra Wong Yang, a former federal prosecutor.

Commission Vice President John Mack echoed Yang’s sentiments and took a jab at critics.

“While it may not be fashionable to some,” he said the new rules give officers the ability to carry out vehicle impounds legally, but also in a way that “shows some compassion. We’re talking about human beings.”

That language, and the commission’s 4-1 vote adopting the measure, is certain to further infuriate the various camps that have angrily and vocally opposed it.

Along with people who object to granting rights to illegal immigrants, critics included those who believe the new policy will jeopardize public safety by allowing people with untested driving skills to remain behind the wheel, and those who believe the department is overstepping its authority by being lenient with people in violation of the state law that requires licenses.

Tyler Izen, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the LAPD’s rank-and-file officers, reiterated his group’s opposition to the plan, saying he disagreed with Beck’s claim that the new rules will encourage unlicensed drivers to act more responsibly and drive safely.

On Monday, the union sent a letter to the department outlining its objections and accused the department of acting out of “political correctness.”

Alan Skobin, the only commissioner to vote against the changes, said he also thought the new rules would compromise people’s safety on the roads.

“We can’t just close our eyes and pretend it’s OK to drive without a license,” he said.

Seeing that the majority was against him, Skobin switched his tack, pushing the others to agree to widen the pool of drivers who will face the 30-day hold.

Since it is rare for city prosecutors to pursue misdemeanor convictions for unlicensed driving and therefore unlikely that police will catch drivers with a prior offense, Skobin succeeded in amending the policy to include those who are cited for the offense but fail to appear in court.

The commission would have made its decision weeks ago, but was delayed by a nonpartisan state agency that issued a last-minute report questioning the legality of the new rules.

Not wanting to run afoul of state laws, the board asked the city attorney’s office to review the opinion and advise it whether Beck’s proposed policy was legal.

On Tuesday, Deputy City Atty. Heather Aubry assured the commission that it could go ahead, saying state law permitted officers to choose between the 30-day hold or the more lenient approach.

Cooley sent a letter to Beck this week indicating that he, too, questioned the legality of the new impound rules.

But Aubry told the commission that Cooley, like the state attorneys, was mistaken and should be disregarded.

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  • Will McMillian
    published this page in Alerta 2012-03-16 08:33:26 -0700