A tug-of-war has ensued over whether Los Angeles police should impound the cars of unlicensed drivers, or let the mostly illegal immigrants arrange to have the vehicles driven home.
Chief Charlie Beck said this week he will soon stop the 30-day seizures, which he calls a police procedure not determined by the police commission or City Council.
Some council members, however, dub the decision a shift in public policy that should be reviewed by elected leaders. They have moved to block Beck's planned change to impound procedures.
"It's unbelievable that this is even being proposed," said Councilman Mitchell Englander, chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, which will discuss the issue today. "It is policy and it's a bad one. People are getting killed."
The pending change would lift the 30-day impound for unlicensed drivers, unless their licenses had been revoked or suspended.
Instead of being towed, cars of any first offenders could be retrieved by the registered owner or a licensed driver, given a "reasonable" amount of time.
In doing so, some say it challenges a state law enacted 18 years ago, considered the harshest ever against unlicensed drivers. Police, however, say it upholds state and federal laws, while conforming to recent court decisions.
Assistant Chief Michel Moore said the new police protocol would be enacted "shortly" and impound cars in a "vast majority of circumstances."
not justifying people who are uninsured. We're not justifying being unlicensed," Moore said. "We just want to use our authority in relation that is proportional to the offense."
Advocates, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, say the impounds place an unfair burden on illegal immigrants, who must pay up to $1,500 for towing and storage.
"Let the punishment fit the crime," said Ron Gochez, a member of the Southern California Immigrant Coalition. "All unlicensed drivers aren't the same. What we're saying is, that the procedure be changed.
"People (without licenses) will still get a ticket, which we agree with, but still be able to keep their car."
Critics, including the Los Angeles police union, say the impounds punish drivers without licenses, while acting as a deterrent to scofflaws.
They say police have no way to check between first or the worst offenders -- because each unlicensed driver lacks a state I.D. -- to determine whether to tow their cars.
"Our members do not want to be told not to enforce state law, to have a 30-day hold," said Tyler Izen, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "It's the law."
Last spring, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a challenge to the city's right to seize the cars of unlicensed drivers.
Los Angeles, while defending the lawsuit on grounds that "unlicensed drivers presented significant hazards to the public," was already planning to go lighter on some car impounds.
"Los Angeles defended the case because the vehicle code, on its face, is valid," Deputy City Attorney Todd Leung said. "The forfeiture, according to the 9th Circuit, is warranted to protect Californians from the harm caused by unlicensed drivers."
The council motion, introduced by Councilman Bernard Parks and to be discussed in the Public Safety Committee today, calls for L.A. police to continue the 30-day hold until the council could review its impact.
The impound issue grew more controversial after an unlicensed driver killed a 60-year-old woman last month while walking across a street in Panorama City.
Radio talk show duo John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of KFI AM (640) called on residents to pack a police commission meeting Tuesday at St. Nicholas Church, 9501 Balboa Blvd., Northridge, to stop the LAPD from changing its policy.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service