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Doing the Crime May Mean Losing Your Ride

Council will vote on whether to seize cars of pimps, drug buyers and illegal dumpers.

September 30, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

At first glance, pimps and johns may not seem to have much in common with drag racers, pot smokers or people who dump their ratty old sofas in the street.

But they all share one problem: Some Los Angeles City Council members want to take away their cars. The council will vote today on whether to authorize seizing the vehicles of those caught pandering, dumping trash and buying drugs. Drag racers and those who solicit prostitution already face that penalty under laws passed within the last year.

"In Los Angeles, the car is king, and if you don't have your car, you're in a world of hurt," said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, an advocate of seizing the wheels of illicit dumpers. "We've got to hit people where it probably hurts them the most, and that's taking away their vehicles."

Critics charge that it is a draconian punishment, and say officials should instead focus on finding real solutions.

Craig Byrnes, a lawyer who serves on San Pedro's neighborhood council, said city officials should open more places where residents can dump garbage. That way, folks might not unload it in back alleys in the dead of night. "Instead, they want to ... seize people's property," he said. "That's not a solution."

Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the seizures often punish the innocent because the ordinances allow officials to take cars regardless of whether the person committing the offense is the car's owner.

"It can have severe consequences on other innocent family members who need that vehicle to get to work, to the doctor, to school, shopping," Schroeder said.

Still, across the state, the seizures are becoming an increasingly popular method of tackling stubborn problems. In 1998, Oakland began taking the cars of those caught soliciting prostitutes or buying drugs. After the ordinance survived a legal challenge, many other cities began copying it, said Oakland Deputy City Atty. Pelayo Llamas.

Los Angeles has taken the idea and run with it. Last December, at Councilman Tom LaBonge's urging, the council passed a law similar to Oakland's that allows officials to seize cars of those caught soliciting prostitution. Since it went into effect in February, officials have nabbed 36 cars.

In June, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel spearheaded a move to confiscate the wheels of those caught street racing, a particular problem in the wide avenues that crisscross Greuel's San Fernando Valley district. So far, officials have seized two vehicles.

Hahn said she watched her colleagues push for those laws and thought, "Hey, this is a great idea for dumping as well." Some neighborhoods in her district, such as Watts, are plagued by trash lining alleyways and empty lots, much of it deposited clandestinely by scofflaws who don't even live in the area, but view Watts as a convenient place to ditch it, she said.

Quentin Drew, artistic director of the Watts Village Theater Company and president of its neighborhood council, supports the proposal.

"People come from all over town thinking this is one big landfill," Drew said, adding that he supports "anything to discourage people from doing it, to help us try" to improve Watts.

Similarly, Councilwoman Jan Perry decided that car seizure might be a good deterrent for people who come to her South Los Angeles district to purchase drugs.

Councilman Jack Weiss has also suggested that "gang activity" should be added to the list of vehicle-seizing offenses, although the council will not vote on that today. Conceivably, he said, youths who flashed gang signs from their cars could find themselves wandering their neighborhoods on foot.

"Gang members use their vehicles to terrorize neighborhoods as well," he said. "Difficult times cry out for creative solutions."

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