Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton was gearing up Friday to lift the Police Department's self-imposed moratorium on impounding cars of unlicensed drivers -- a contentious issue for advocates on both sides of the illegal immigration debate.
Bratton said he would recommend that the Police Commission reverse a 2-week-old decision limiting the ability of officers to impound vehicles for 30 days, as state law allows.
Several commissioners said they had questions about the moratorium and the towing policy itself, which is the subject of a lawsuit in federal court challenging its constitutionality.
Bratton said he agreed to the moratorium while awaiting a legal opinion from City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office in light of a 2005 federal court decision on vehicle impounds in Oregon.
The chief said Delgadillo's opinion, released Thursday, convinced him that the city's impound policy -- and the state law on which it is based -- are defensible.
"I anticipate that we'll be going back to what we were doing," Bratton said. "Impoundments are necessary. It's the law in the state of California."
Bratton has a strong advocate in his corner -- Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who favors a return to the original towing policy and appoints police commissioners.
"The mayor supports the Police Department's right and responsibility to enforce the law against unlicensed and uninsured drivers," spokesman Matt Szabo said. "He's comfortable with the law as it stands."
The impound policy has long been a hot-button issue because many unlicensed drivers whose cars are towed are illegal immigrants who cannot get driver's licenses, officials said.
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.
Immigrant rights advocates argue that the cost of getting cars out of custody is too severe: Towing and storage fees in Los Angeles can exceed $1,000, sometimes surpassing the value of impounded cars, leaving people without necessary transportation.
For standard-size vehicles, the city charges $101.50 per hour for towing, and $31.50 per day storage. To get a vehicle back, the owner must pay a $48 release fee and a 10% city parking occupancy tax.
"If they go back to their ways, we're going to do everything possible for [it] not to continue," said Marvin Andrade, executive director of the Central American Resource Center.
A lawyer who sued Los Angles and several other cities in federal court last March over their towing practices said she would seek an injunction if the Los Angeles Police Department resumes towing.
"It looks like they are backtracking now," said attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker, who had praised the department's moratorium as a sensible approach to the problem.
But opponents of illegal immigration say the policy delivers an appropriately stern message to unlicensed drivers who may be in the country illegally.
"From our perspective, laws that make it easy for illegal aliens to live in this country and policies that turn a blind eye contribute to the problem of illegal immigration," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
A spokesman for Delgadillo defended the Police Department's long-standing practices.
"The city attorney's office believes it is constitutional for the city to impound the vehicle of an unlicensed driver, with a few narrow exceptions," Nick Velasquez said.
The police union, meanwhile, couched the issue in terms of public safety, arguing that a significant number of hit-and-run accidents involve unlicensed drivers. One traffic division commander noted in a memo this week that unlicensed drivers and those driving with suspended licenses accounted for 46% of hit-and-run arrests in the LAPD's West Division in 2006.
The LAPD impounds about 47,000 cars a year belonging to drivers who are unlicensed or have revoked or suspended licenses. Officials do not collect information on how many of them are illegal immigrants.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also impounds the vehicles of unlicensed drivers, confiscating 25,160 vehicles and boats so far this year in the 40 cities and the unincorporated areas it serves.
The Sheriff's Department charges a $93 release fee, but cities add their own towing and daily impound fees on top of that.
Wrangling over the city's impound policy revolves around a 2005 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving an unlicensed driver in Oregon. The court concluded that such impounds violate constitutional protections against unreasonable seizures.
In June, Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar introduced a motion calling on the Police Department and the city attorney's office to determine the effect of the Oregon decision on Los Angeles' impound policies.