Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck wants to revamp the department's rules to allow his officers greater discretion in deciding when to seize and impound the car of an unlicensed driver with no prior convictions, and in determining how long it should be held. The policy change is long overdue.
No doubt the proposal will stir anger in nativist circles, where it will be portrayed as a sop to undocumented immigrants, who are barred from obtaining driver's licenses and whose lives would be made a little less difficult as a result of this change. But in fact it's a reasonable policy. Police officers would still be required to impound the cars of most unlicensed drivers. The only difference is that those drivers who have no license but have a legitimate form of identification, a valid auto insurance policy and no previous violations would be allowed to keep their cars if a licensed driver were on hand or nearby to take over the wheel. If not, they would be allowed to pick up the car as soon as the next day, instead of waiting 30 days and paying fees as high as $1,200, as they are required to do under the current system. Beck's proposal grants police officers the same discretion given the California Highway Patrol and other departments around the state.
Ultimately, the real problem isn't impounds but unlicensed drivers. That's why we applaud Beck's comments this week acknowledging that the longer-term solution is to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain provisional or nonresident California driver's licenses. It's a smart approach to public safety. As Beck told The Times' editorial board: "Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process?"
Just as with the impoundment proposal, critics will argue that granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants condones their presence in this country and makes it easier for them to stay. That makes sense in theory but not in practice. The reality is that undocumented immigrants are already here, and they are already driving to jobs taking care of children, mowing lawns and working in factories, among other things. Doesn't it make sense to ensure that every driver, regardless of immigration status, is trained, capable and insured?
As Beck wisely points out, California's push to keep undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses hasn't reduced the problems on the road. It's time to consider a different approach.