Immigrants rights groups urge changes in car impound policies

Yaretzie Vasquez, 20 months old, is at a news conference in downtown L.A. with her mother and sister to support a campaign by the Free Our Cars Coalition and other immigrant advocacy groups, who are pressing for a change in impound policies affecting unlicensed drivers.
(Christina House, For The Times)

Immigrant rights groups are calling on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other police agencies to stop impounding the cars of unlicensed drivers.

A 2011 state law requires police at drunk-driving checkpoints to give unlicensed drivers the chance to call someone with a license to take the car before it is towed.


But that law does not apply to routine traffic stops, and activists complain that unlicensed drivers across the county are losing their cars after being pulled over for minor infractions, such as making a wrong turn or driving without a seat belt. In many cases, the cars are impounded for 30 days at a fee of more than $1,000.

Activists say impound policies unfairly target immigrants here illegally, who cannot obtain licenses in California. At a news conference Wednesday held by a group called the Free Our Cars Coalition, Mexican immigrant Alma Castaneda said she and her husband have had their cars impounded five times for unlicensed driving. Three times they have not had the cash to pay the impound fee, she said, and have been forced to give up their cars to the lot.

Castaneda and other members of the coalition are asking immigrants to share their stories about impounds on a website in hopes of pressuring police departments around the county to make changes.

That is how immigrant rights groups persuaded the Los Angeles Police Department to make major changes to its impound policy, said Zach Hoover, a Baptist minister who leads an alliance of religious and community groups called LA Voice.

The number of vehicles impounded by the LAPD fell 39% last year from the year before, after the department enacted rules prohibiting officers from seizing cars at routine traffic stops if a licensed driver was available to take the car, according to department officials. The rule that required cars to be kept in impound lots for 30 days was also changed; now drivers can retrieve their vehicles as soon as they pay the impound fee.

The new rules drew lawsuits from the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, and from a national group called Judicial Watch that said the policy is unfair to taxpayers. California State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris issued an opinion that the LAPD’s impound policies were legal.

But impounding after routine traffic stops remains common in other parts of L.A. County, the coalition said. Gerardo Leon, a Mexican immigrant in the country without legal permission who lives in Canoga Park, said he was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy Tuesday on his way home from work. The deputy told him he had been driving too close to another vehicle.

Leon produced evidence of insurance but did not have a license. He was issued a ticket, and his car was towed to an impound lot, where it must remain for 30 days. He said he was not given the opportunity to call a licensed friend to take the car. He doesn’t know how he’ll get to his job at a construction company, which is 25 miles away from his home.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said Sheriff Lee Baca issued a directive several years ago “that made it clear his priority isn’t to impound vehicles.” But Whitmore said he didn’t know if the directive applies only to unlicensed drivers stopped at sobriety checkpoints, or whether it pertains to all traffic stops.

He said he thought a new review of the policy was likely and urged anybody who felt they had been treated inappropriately to file a complaint.

Whitmore suggested Baca is open to changing the policy. “It is not our intention to impound vehicles if we don’t have to,” he said.