The Los Angeles Police Department’s controversial plan to revamp the rules on how officers impound vehicles of unlicensed drivers was put on hold Tuesday because state lawyers questioned the legality of the proposed reforms.
Police Chief Charlie Beck, who has faced considerable blowback in recent weeks from people angered by the impound plan, had hoped the Police Commission would approve implementation of the new rules at Tuesday’s meeting..
Those hopes were stymied, however, by a nonpartisan state agency that issued a last-minute report questioning the legality of the new rules.
The five-member civilian board that oversees the LAPD and Beck elected to postpone a final decision for two weeks while the city attorney’s office reviews the findings of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides legal opinions to state lawmakers.
The focus of the bureau report was fairly narrow: addressing how police should handle vehicles of people who have never received a driver’s license — as opposed to those caught driving on a suspended or revoked license.
It concluded that once an officer decides to impound the car of a never-licensed driver, the officer is legally required to invoke the part of the state’s vehicle code that requires the car be impounded and held for 30 days before the owner is allowed to retrieve it. These 30-day holds come with hefty fees and fines that typically exceed $1,200.
That finding seemed to call into question whether the LAPD’s changes, if enacted, would run afoul of the law. Beck is seeking a more lenient approach for people who have never been issued a license but meet several requirements — namely having auto insurance, valid identification and no previous convictions for unlicensed driving.
For those drivers, Beck wants his officers to use a section of the state vehicle code that would allow the vehicle’s owner to retrieve it from the impound lot as soon as the following day. People driving on suspended or revoked licenses or those who do not satisfy the department’s requirements would find their vehicles impounded under the 30-day hold.
The new rules also would clarify that officers have the discretion not to impound a vehicle if someone with a license is riding in the car or able to come to the scene “immediately” to drive the car away.
Currently, Beck said, officers are given little direction on which part of the state code to use in various scenarios and are doing so inconsistently and unfairly. Police officials say the new rules are needed to ensure that officers throughout the city apply the laws equally.
When he first proposed making changes, Beck also presented it as a matter of fairness for illegal immigrants who cannot receive licenses in California. The 30-day holds, he said, are too severe a punishment for never-licensed drivers and place a serious strain on their ability to get to and from jobs.
After that was met with furious rebukes from opponents, Beck switched to a less divisive tack in recent weeks, saying the proposed changes would encourage unlicensed drivers to obtain insurance and identification.
“I have been all over this city and heard from hundreds of people on this issue. They say, ‘I was hit by an unlicensed driver,’ and the very next sentence is, ‘No insurance, no identification.’ I can’t fix the unlicensed driver part here. That is not within the purview of the chief of police, but I can take steps that will fix to some degree the insurance aspect and identification aspect,” he said after Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Opponents say the changes would compromise safety on the roadways and flout state laws requiring drivers to have licenses.
Beck disagreed, saying officers will still cite and, when needed, arrest unlicensed drivers.
“People have to understand this is not a free pass for driving unlicensed,” he said.