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Editorial

Unlicensed drivers: Impounding is not the answer

Chief Beck is right to curb the impounding of vehicles driven by unlicensed motorists. A better solution is to allow all immigrants, regardless of status, to apply for licenses.

April 29, 2011

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has adopted a common-sense approach to dealing with unlicensed drivers and the cars they drive. Under Beck's new rule, when officers at sobriety checkpoints stop unlicensed drivers, they can issue them tickets or, if they have no identification, arrest them. But police are no longer allowed to impound a car if a licensed driver or the registered and licensed owner is on hand or can pick up the car in a reasonable amount of time. This helps officers do their jobs while complying with a federal court ruling that set limits on when cars can be seized.

The LAPD's new rule doesn't give a free pass to drivers whose licenses have been revoked or who failed to get one in the first place. Rather, it applies the same rules to them that are applied to drunk drivers. In those cases, police aren't required to impound a vehicle as long as there is a licensed and sober individual available to drive it.

The change was made in part to ensure that sobriety checkpoints focused on nabbing drunk drivers. Beck said the old policy cast too wide a net and suggested that it disproportionately penalized undocumented immigrants, who are barred by law from getting driver's licenses. The new approach should also help prevent abuses like those uncovered in Bell, where police are accused of using impounds to help boost the city's revenues.

A 2005 federal court ruling said that police can't impound a car just because the driver is unlicensed. The California Highway Patrol and other police departments, including San Francisco's, have the same policy.

Yet Beck's new rule is opposed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which alleged in a grievance filed this month that it violates state law and creates a liability issue. It warns that officers and the city could be sued for any damage or injury caused by an unlicensed driver who later continues to drive. The league argues that impounds discourage such drivers by making it expensive and inconvenient for them to recover a car.

Unlicensed drivers, including illegal immigrants, shouldn't be on the road. But impounding their cars is not the answer. A far better solution would be to enact legislation to allow all immigrants — without regard to their status — to apply for driver's licenses. This would ensure that illegal immigrants learn the rules, pass a driving test and obtain insurance. That, ultimately, would help protect everyone on the roads.

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