Opinion: Impounding unlicensed drivers’ cars: A matter of life and death
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L.A. County resident Don Rosenberg responds to Jim Newton’s Jan. 30 Op-Ed column, ‘LAPD’s impound dilemma’ and his follow-up blog post on Feb. 1, ‘Who’s in charge of the LAPD?’ If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy.
I disagree with how Jim Newton and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck characterize this issue of impounding unlicensed drivers’ cars. It’s certainly not a matter of procedure, as Beck asserts, and it’s not really a policy either. It’s the law. Indeed, when you look at the statistics regarding the death and destruction caused by unlicensed drivers, it is nothing short of criminal negligence to do anything but enforce the law as vigorously as possible.
Before my son’s killing at the hands of an unlicensed driver, I was aware that there was a problem. Since my son’s death in November 2010, I have spent almost every minute I haven’t been working researching the issue. I’m not sure I would call myself an expert but I am sure that most of the people addressing this issue, particularly those who don’t believe it is a severe problem, are grossly underestimating the magnitude of the problem.
Take Newton’s view that seizing cars for 30 days is too harsh a punishment for unlicensed drivers pulled over for ‘trivial offenses.’ Driving a car without a license, when you don’t know the rules of the road, is hardly a trivial offense. Looking at the statistics, which show that unlicensed drivers are five times as likely as licensed ones to cause a fatal accident, four times as likely to flee and five times as likely to drink drunk, it’s impossible to think of this as a trivial offense. And people do this every day. (My numbers come from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and findings by the California Legislature.)
Newton is concerned that impounding cars driven by unlicensed motorists would ‘encourage those without licenses to drive inexpensive cars and discourages them from registering them or obtaining insurance, because they will simply walk away if the car is seized and they can’t afford to get it back.’ Incredibly, his solution is to lessen the punishment for a group of people who believe that the laws don’t apply to them. What, should the LAPD detail the impounded cars before returning them to their unlicensed owners?
Newton and I agree there should be different standards for anyone who drives without a license, but we disagree with what those standards should be. If the intent of the law is to get unlicensed drivers off the road, even the current ‘policy’ of impounding their cars is not working. Ideally, their cars should be impounded for 30 days, after which the unlicensed motorists would be placed under surveillance to make sure that those who return behind the wheel face arrest or permanent seizure of their cars. Anyone driving without insurance should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Anyone in an accident that kills someone should be charged with second-degree murder.
The man who would later be behind the wheel of the car that struck my son was caught on June 14, 2010 driving the wrong way on a one-way street without a license or insurance. His car was impounded, but only because he couldn’t get anyone to come and get the car. He had the car back in less than 24 hours. The San Francisco district attorney’s office allowed him to plead guilty to the wrong-way driving charge but dropped the other two counts. I have since learned this office doesn’t prosecute unlicensed drivers.
He had already been driving again for more than 45 days when the D.A.'s office dropped the charges. A short time later he struck and killed my son. According to four eyewitnesses, he struck my son while trying to beat a light making a left turn without signaling. Given the circumstances (my son’s motorcycle was nearly stopped in rush-hour traffic), it’s likely my son was alive after he was hit the first time. But instead of stopping, the unlicensed driver accelerated and drove over my son. When he couldn’t continue forward, the driver backed up and drove over my son a second time. He attempted to drive forward again, but a brave man stood in front of the motorist’s car. Unfortunately, the car stopped with its front tire on my son’s body. Five men had to lift the car off him.
At his preliminary hearing, the judge dropped the vehicular manslaughter charge to a misdemeanor. The motorist will serve, at most, a year in jail. (This is only the tip of the iceberg in our fight against the San Francisco D.A.'s office.)
I wish I could say this was the exception to the rule, but it is not. We now have all over the state cities that have already enacted what L.A. is trying to do with horrible and tragic results. District attorneys’ offices and judges across the state are unleashing a torrent of dangerous, unlicensed drivers onto California’s roads for no other good reason than to pander to Latino voters. In my son’s case, they let a man who killed another person off the hook. The DMV’s enforcement of the law blocking car registration for drivers without insurance is poor at best, and although I have not been able to get a good number on unlicensed drivers with insurance, I would estimate, based on my own exhaustive research, that the number is around 25%.
So here I am, a left-wing liberal who has had enough with all this talk of ‘fairness.’ I believe illegal immigrants should be able to get licenses, but only because we need to protect ourselves and only if we make the laws against unlicensed driving tougher. I was heartened at the Jan. 17 Los Angeles Police Commission meeting in Northridge by the Latinos who spoke against Beck’s proposal.
I have nothing against the Latino community, but I have everything against people who break the law and police chiefs and newspapers that condone it. After all, I couldn’t care less about the immigration status or nationality of the person who killed my son.
-- Don Rosenberg