Unlicensed drivers and impounded cars

Maria Hernandez, left, gives her testimony on being stopped by the police and arrested for driving without a license, as Mario Fuentes, Jose Diaz, and Reyes Juarez, from left, look on during a press conference by the Free Our Cars Coalition.
(Los Angeles Times)

Last April, the Los Angeles Police Department adopted a new approach to the problem of unlicensed drivers, many of whom are barred from ever obtaining a license because of their immigration status. Under the rule, known as Special Order 7, police officers are authorized to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers (as they always have been), but those drivers who have no prior violations and can provide proof of insurance may retrieve their cars as soon as they pay the impound fees, rather than waiting 30 days. Police Chief Charlie Beck said the change was designed to relieve the unfair burden that impounds placed on people living in the country illegally.

That policy, however, didn’t sit well with the union that represents police officers and a conservative watchdog group, both of which filed a lawsuit challenging the rule. Now, a Los Angeles judge has found in their favor, ruling that Special Order 7 is illegal because it is preempted by state law.

This page supported the LAPD policy as both reasonable and practical, and we’re dismayed that the judge struck it down. But it was never a perfect solution. A far more sensible approach to dealing with the problem would be to enact legislation that allows immigrants, regardless of their residency status, to apply for and receive driver’s licenses. A driver’s license doesn’t confer legal residency; it merely tells law enforcement authorities that the person behind the wheel of that car has passed a written exam and a driving test and is qualified to be on the road. Granting licenses to noncitizens would also help address the unfair reality, as documented in 2010 by the the Center for Investigative Reporting, that most of the drivers losing their cars at checkpoints for not having a license were sober immigrants who were driving perfectly well.

AB 60, introduced by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), would provide driver’s licenses regardless of citizenship status. Some critics will argue that such a law will only reward lawbreaking. But that ignores the fact that undocumented immigrants are already here and are already behind the wheel. Wouldn’t we all benefit if those drivers are trained, capable and insured?