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PALM LATITUDES

ON-RAMP : But Officer, I Do Have a Library Card . . .

March 07, 1993|Sheldon Teitelbaum

In Los Angeles, it is quite illegal to drive without a license or insurance, yet thousands of motorists do it daily. Maybe it's because the lines at the DMV are too long, or the price of insurance is too high. Or maybe it's because a crime doesn't seem like a crime if you don't get in trouble for it.

Early last December, my sister Elayne parked her Jeep on a North Hills thoroughfare, where she, my mom and some neighbors were holding a garage sale. At about 1 o'clock, a young Canoga Park man driving a Cadillac rear-ended her car. Two police cars arrived, and upon questioning the man, the officers discovered that he lacked auto insurance, vehicle registration and a driver's license. After writing down his particulars, they sent the fellow on his way without a ticket.

I couldn't believe this story, so I called the Valley Traffic Division and asked its commanding officer, Capt. John Mutz, if such a thing were possible. It is indeed, he said, because of staff shortages and changes in the law. The legislation that once permitted traffic police to cite drivers for lacking proof of insurance (and, in some cases, to impound their vehicles) lapsed Jan. 1. And even when a driver informs an officer that he isn't licensed to drive--those lacking documentation often tell officers that they've left their licenses at home--he will probably get off scot-free. No traffic ticket, no retribution from the Department of Motor Vehicles, no nothing.

"There's really no penalty anymore for driving a car without a license," acknowledges Mutz. "You can drive all over and the chances are you won't be stopped. And if you are stopped, it becomes the discretion of the officer, who usually has other priorities."

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