A lawsuit has been filed to try and block a new LA police policy that will let unlicensed drivers, including undocumented immigrants, skirt a mandatory 30-day impound rule following a traffic stop.
A group of civil rights attorneys filed the complaint on Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The complaint seeks to block enforcement of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s new policy to prevent “wasteful, unlawful and unconstitutional law enforcement policies.”
It names Beck, CHP Commissioner Joseph A. Farrow, the city of Los Angeles and the state of California.
“The problem with the 30-day impound is it’s enforced against people with basically not much money,” said Donald W. Cook, an attorney who filed the complaint. “It really is a financial racket. It’s a Robin Hood in reverse.
“This is not about the state’s ability to seize and remove from the street cars that cannot be left on the street for any number of reasons,” Cook said. “It’s about ability of the owner to get the car back in less than 30 days and even immediately.”
Cook and his fellow colleagues have a similar case that’s pending in federal court.
Several cities, including L.A., made a motion recently to have that case dismissed, claiming the issues have been decided by an earlier appellate court ruling.
The judge could rule on the motion any day, Cook said.
No court date in the most recent case has been set.
LAPD spokesman Gus Villanueva said the department had not seen the complaint and could not comment.
The complaint argues the LAPD policy change illegally requires a mandatory 30-day impound of drivers stopped with an expired California driver's license or a foreign driver's license.
It argues the department unlawfully prevents the owners of vehicles from getting their cars back before 30 days when another driver who is not the owner was at fault for the violation and impound.
The complaint also contends LAPD procedures for notifying car owners of an impound deny alleged violators due process by not notifying them of a hearing date to contest an impound.
The city Police Commission last week approved a new policy that allowed offenders who have valid identification, car registration and proof of insurance to avoid a mandatory 30-day impound.
Under the policy, drivers who were at fault in an accident, or had prior convictions for driving unlicensed would not qualify for a shortened impound.
Beck, who proposed the policy with the backing of immigrants' rights groups and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said last week the change was an attempt to eliminate confusion by officers in the field over two conflicting laws regarding when to impound a vehicle and for how long.
He also said the policy discriminated against undocumented immigrants, who are unable to apply for driver licenses.
Two attorneys behind the lawsuit argued it did not go far enough, saying it does nothing to curtail the high costs of having a vehicle towed and impounded.
A 30-day impound costs about $1,500, according to attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file police officers, challenges the policy. The union believes the law encourages more unlicensed drivers to be on the roads and jeopardizes public safety.
The LAPD impounded about 30,000 cars last year. About 85 percent of those were for violations of a state vehicle code that mandates a 30-day impound.
A memo by the state Legislative Council, which provides legal advice to state legislators, questioned its legality, while the Los Angeles City Attorney said the law is legally defensible.
District Attorney Steve Cooley sent a letter to the commission stating the policy violates state law and would make the city vulnerable to lawsuits.
The polarizing impound policy is taking place during a heated and emotional national debate over immigration.
"What I’m saying is very simple. We need to cut off the magnets that are drawing people to come here illegally,” California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, told KCAL9.
“We need to stop rewarding people, giving them free college tuition - Hey by the way, if you don’t have a driver’s license we’ll make whole new classification. Hey, if you get your car impounded we’ll clear that up with another law.”
Beck acknowledged after the commission's vote that the debate was "far from over," but insisted that the policy would still crack down on unlicensed drivers who are repeat offenders or cause accidents.
"This is not a free ride," the chief said.
The commission's vote isn't automatically subject to review by the City Council, but the council could vote to take up the issue.
City News Service contributed to this report.