The city Police Commission today approved a new policy for impounding the cars 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 were at fault in an accident, who had their licenses suspended, revoked or had been caught previously driving without a license would not qualify for a shortened impound.
At the urging of immigrant-rights activists, civil rights groups and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief Charlie Beck proposed a policy last fall and a revision in January to update the department's handling of unlicensed drivers' vehicles.
Lawyers and activists with the National Lawyers Guild, the Southern California Immigration Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the existing policy of a mandatory 30-day impound discriminated against illegal immigrants, who are unable to apply for a driver's license.
But Beck's proposal was opposed by the union representing rank-and-file police officers, which filed a formal complaint last week with the department's employee relations administrator. In the complaint, the Los Angeles Police Protective League said the department failed to "meet and confer with the League over the effects and impact on the wages, hours and working conditions" of the officers who will have to enforce the new special order.
The change was also opposed by City Councilman Mitch Englander, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee.
"I don't think this passes legal muster, quite frankly, from my analysis," Englander said after a briefing on the issue last Friday, adding that the intent of the state law passed in the 1980s governing police impound procedure was to prevent unlicensed drivers from being on the road.
"Studies show the unlicensed driver will be back behind the wheel," Englander said. "I don't want blood on my hands, and I don't know how many more deaths and injuries have to occur."
A memo by the state Legislative Council, which provides legal advice to state legislators, also questioned the legality of the proposal.
The commission's vote isn't automatically subject to review by the City Council, but the council could vote to take up the issue.
LAPD Deputy Chief Michel Moore told the council's Public Safety Committee last week that the revised policy is necessary because officers in the field are often confused about when to impound a car and for how long. About 85 percent of impounds are issued under a mandatory 30-day hold, he said. The rest are detained under a shortened period or not at all when a licensed driver is available to pick up an affected vehicle.
Under the new policy, unlicensed drivers who meet the selected criteria would also have their vehicles impounded for a shorter amount of time, based on their ability to pay impound fees and recover the vehicle.
Beck acknowledged after the Police Commission's vote that the debate was "far from over," but insisted that the policy would still crack down on unlicensed drivers who are repeat offenders or cause accidents.
"This is not a free ride," the chief said.
Beck, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Villaraigosa expressed support last week for creating a different driver's license for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for several years and have a clean record.
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.