The Los Angeles Police Department has imposed a moratorium on impounding the vehicles of unlicensed drivers amid concerns that the practice may be unconstitutional, officials said Tuesday.
The decision touches on what has long been a hot-button issue, because many unlicensed drivers who have their cars towed are illegal immigrants who cannot get driver's licenses.
Immigrant rights groups and some legislators for years have sought legislation granting illegal immigrants some form of driver's licenses -- but the bills have been repeatedly rejected, most recently by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Former Gov. Gray Davis signed such a bill during the recall campaign against him, but the Legislature repealed the law at Schwarzenegger's urging soon after he ousted Davis.
LAPD officials said they decided to stop impounding until the city attorney's office provides a final legal assessment of a 2005 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals involving an Oregon impound case.
The department's change comes after some civil rights groups as well as L.A. politicians called on the city to consider suspending impounding because of the Oregon ruling. The LAPD impounds about 40,000 cars a year from unlicensed drivers, though officials don't know how many of them are illegal immigrants.
But many other agencies -- including the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and California Highway Patrol -- continue to impound cars of unlicensed drivers, with some counties concluding that the appeals court ruling does not apply to them.
In a memo to all the LAPD's commanding officers, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger directed that officers no longer impound vehicles in stops when the only offense was driving without a license. Drivers will continue to be cited for driving without a license. But the vehicle will be impounded only when it cannot be driven away by a licensed driver or parked legally and secured.
The moratorium met with immediate criticism Tuesday from some who see it as giving lawbreakers a free ride.
Councilman Dennis Zine, a reserve and former LAPD motorcycle officer, said the city could be liable if that unlicensed driver gets behind the wheel of that vehicle again and someone gets hurt.
"You are jeopardizing public safety," Zine said. "How do you know they aren't going to drive again if you give the vehicle back?"
Councilman Jose Huizar, who in June called on city leaders to study the Oregon ruling, said the city needs to follow the letter of the law, even if it's unpopular.
"According to the case, you cannot constitutionally impound a car because the driver does not have a driver's license. So I sought that clarification," Huizar said. "I wanted to ensure the city complies with the law."
In Miranda vs. City Cornelius, the 9th Circuit found that impounding a legally parked vehicle was unreasonable seizure of private property under the 4th and 14th amendments when there was no reasonable public safety justification.
The Oregon case involved Jorge Miranda, who was teaching his unlicensed wife, Irene, to drive his vehicle.
An officer saw the woman driving and made a traffic stop in the couple's driveway. The officer cited the husband for allowing an unlicensed driver to operate his car and cited the wife for driving without a license. Police impounded the vehicle for 30 days.
Other law enforcement agencies have reviewed the case and concluded that they can continue impounding cars.
The Alameda County district attorney's office found the case involved "special circumstances" -- that is, the driver was actually in his driveway when the impound occurred -- and therefore was different from police pulling over a car on the street.
But state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) includes information on his website about how unlicensed drivers can fight impounds, citing the Oregon case. The information is presented in the form of a card that can be copied and carried in a driver's wallet or purse.
"Bill Bratton is a great police chief," said Cedillo, praising the LAPD action. "We just want people to follow the law." Cedillo said he expects the city to make the no-impound policy permanent.
Paysinger said the LAPD decided to impose the moratorium after discussing the issue with the city attorney's lawyers. He said the attorneys told the department that they believed there were potential constitutional issues with the impounding of cars from unlicensed drivers.
"This is not something we would have done ourselves without seeking their advice," he said.
City attorney spokesman Frank Mateljan said the LAPD asked his office to examine the issue. City prosecutors, he added, did not suggest the moratorium.