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30-day auto impounds reconsidered

Times Staff Writer

After the city of Los Angeles’ brief moratorium on impounding the cars of unlicensed drivers, two other cities have moved to end their 30-day impounds, which they say place an unfair financial burden on illegal immigrants and low-income residents.

Bell Gardens, which modified its policy in September, and Huntington Park, which approved the change last month, now allow drivers to reclaim cars immediately instead of waiting a month and paying the hundreds of dollars often required to get a car back.

The moves by those cities are part of a renewed push by some in California to soften the state law that requires impounding of vehicles driven by unlicensed drivers.

Huntington Park City Atty. Francisco Leal said the law imposes an unfair hardship on many drivers.

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“This will take away the most egregious part of the law, that is, the 30-day period,” Leal said. “There is no way these people can afford that.”

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the law was intended to be harsh to ensure that drivers have licenses.

“Losing your car for a day isn’t enough of a threat to convince people it’s not worth the risk,” he said.

But opponents maintain that the punishment goes way beyond the offense. They say the law has essentially become a weapon to punish illegal immigrants, who cannot get driver’s licenses.

“The hardship on these families is just phenomenal,” said Cynthia Anderson-Barker, who filed a lawsuit against the state and several cities challenging the 30-day impounds. “When the car is gone and the family . . . loses their transportation, it pushes them further into poverty.”

The impound issue surfaced in August when the Los Angeles Police Department decided to halt the practice, saying it might be unconstitutional.

The LAPD’s move was partly based on a 2005 U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case ruling that impounding a legally parked car was an unreasonable seizure of private property when there was no reasonable threat to public safety.

The city attorney’s office later determined that the impound law did not violate the constitution in most cases, and the LAPD resumed impounding in September.

With no definitive legal guidance, cities have adopted a mishmash of enforcement policies.

“Each agency, I think, looks at it differently,” said Maywood Police Cmdr. Frank Hauptmann. “We all know what the law says -- it really is a matter of how flexible the city wants to be.”

Last year, the department started releasing cars before the elapse of the 30-day period, Hauptmann said.

“The problem is people can’t afford to get their cars out,” he said. “They don’t have a car to take their kids to school or go to work.”

In Bell Gardens, police do not hold the cars of unlicensed drivers for 30 days unless the driver is a repeat offender, said Police Chief Andreas Probst. “To hold their cars for 30 days would be an economic hardship for them,” he said. “I don’t think it would be good public relations.”

South Gate police routinely keep such cars for 30 days, though supervisors have some discretion to make exceptions, said Sgt. Keith Underwood. The monthlong impound is important because it gets the unlicensed drivers off the street, he said.

“Everybody has got to have a driver’s license as far as we are concerned,” he said. “If you don’t have a driver’s license, you are less likely to have insurance, and if there is a traffic accident, somebody has to be on the hook.”

Immigrant rights groups have pushed lawmakers in Sacramento to allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, but the bills have been rejected.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who has sponsored several such bills, said he has been pushing city and police officials throughout the state to change their impound policies.

Cedillo said he was pleased that some cities have altered their policies but would like to see cities and counties stop towing entirely.

He said a statewide moratorium would be legal, citing an analysis by the state legislative council that said the simple fact of a driver’s being unlicensed was not enough justification to impound a vehicle.

But Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform countered that ending impounds would send the signal that cities welcome illegal immigrants.

“Obviously, these are local governments who have been inclined to accommodate illegal immigrants in every way possible,” he said.

anna.gorman@latimes.com


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