The conservative government watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit challenging the Los Angeles Police Department's new policy liberalizing procedures for impounding cars of unlicensed drivers, the group announced Wednesday.
The suit filed Tuesday by the group based in Washington, D.C., is the third suit filed in as many months challenging the policy. The suit on behalf of Harold Sturgeon of Los Angeles asks a judge to rule that the department's impound policy is an unlawful use of taxpayer money specifically "to help unlicensed illegal aliens."
In February, the Police Commission, which provides civilian oversight of the LAPD, approved the policy to allow a driver who is stopped for a moving violation, and who has valid identification, car registration, proof of insurance and a clean driving record, to avoid a mandatory 30-day impound of his or her vehicle.
A driver who was at fault in an accident, or had a prior conviction for driving unlicensed, does not qualify for a shortened one-day impound.
Beck, who proposed the policy with the backing of immigrants' rights groups and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said the former policy was unfair to illegal immigrants who cannot get drivers licenses. Towing and daily impound charges over 30 days can top $1,000 and sometimes exceed the worth of the vehicle.
Beck has said the change was also an attempt to eliminate confusion by officers in the field over two conflicting laws regarding when to impound a vehicle and for how long.
Between April 22, when Special Order 7 took effect, and May 8, mandatory 30-day impounds dropped by 45 percent compared to the same period in 2011, according to a statistic circulated by the union representing rank-and-file police officers, which opposes the policy.
LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said he could not verify that, but police personnel were doing an analysis of its towing numbers.
"Whenever we change a procedure, it takes some time for our personnel to fully understand and implement it," Smith said in an email. "There may be some confusion among our officers. In any case a few weeks look at the initiation of any program is much too brief a period to draw any real conclusions."
Police are expected to give Police Commission an update the effects of the policy change after about six months.
"This is yet another example of the Los Angeles Police Department's unlawful use of taxpayer dollars to further Los Angeles' status as a sanctuary city," Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said in a statement. "(The policy) is illegal and dangerous. Unlicensed drivers, whether unlawfully present aliens or not, are a menace to the public safety. The Los Angeles Police Department is once again putting politics and ideology before the safety of citizens, police officers and the rule of law."
Judicial Watch's suit was the third filed to challenge the relaxed impound policy.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents more than 9,900 sworn officers, filed a similar lawsuit challenging the policy last month, though the group distanced itself from the Judicial Watch suit.
"The Los Angeles Police Protective League is not familiar with Judicial Watch's lawsuit," LAPPL President Tyler Izen said. "The LAPPL's decision to file a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and its police department was prompted by the concerns that the new policy conflicts with state law."
The new policy might subject LAPD officers to civil liability if they release an unlicensed driver's car under the new policy and that driver, within those next 30 days, goes on to cause a collision resulting in injury or death, Izen said.
A third suit filed by a group of civil rights attorneys challenges the policy on different grounds, arguing it is too harsh because it prevents the owners of vehicles from getting their cars back before 30 days when another driver who is not the owner was at fault for the violation and impound.
Local and state prosecutors have issued conflicting legal opinions.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich advised the department and its civilian oversight board that the policy is legal.
District Attorney Steve Cooley and the Office of Legislative Counsel, which provides legal advice to state legislators, say it violates state vehicle code.
The LAPD impounded about 30,000 vehicles last year. About 85 percent of those were for violations of a state vehicle code that mandates a 30-day impound.