Under criticism that it was unfairly targeting undocumented immigrants, the Los Angeles Police Department on Friday announced changes to its rules for impounding cars of unlicensed drivers at sobriety checkpoints.
Previously, LAPD officers at such checkpoints followed stringent protocols that called for them to impound a car whenever the driver was found not to have a valid license, regardless of whether the driver had been drinking.
Those rules have drawn the ire of immigration advocacy groups that said they disproportionately targeted undocumented immigrants, who are not able to obtain licenses legally in nearly all U.S. states. Once a vehicle is impounded, law enforcement agencies often require it to remain locked up for at least a month and charge the owner hefty fees to release it.
The new LAPD guidelines soften the department's stance somewhat. Police will be required to make an attempt to contact the registered owner of the stopped vehicle. If the owner is a licensed driver and can respond to the checkpoint in "a reasonable period of time," the officers will release the car to him or her. If the owner is unlicensed, officers will permit another person who is a licensed driver to take the car.
If no one with a license is available, police will impound a vehicle. In any case, police will issue a citation to the unlicensed driver.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said that since he took over the department more than a year ago, the checkpoint policy had "stuck in my craw as one of the things we weren't doing the right way." Beck said he decided to make the change after immigration rights advocates raised the issue with him anew in meetings this week.
"I'm tired of casting the net so wide," he said. "This is the right thing to do. There is a fairness issue here … and we're trying to balance the needs of all segments of our community and keep the roads safe."
The new rules, Beck said, were an attempt to mitigate somewhat "the current reality, which is that for a vast number of people, who are a valuable asset to our community and who have very limited resources, their ability to live and work in L.A. is severely limited by their immigration status."
The change, which the department announced in a news release late Friday afternoon, is likely to anger groups that support strict enforcement of immigration laws. Efforts to contact representatives of several of those groups for comment were unsuccessful.
The issue of impounds has become a controversial topic in recent years. Police in the small cities of Bell and Maywood have been accused of systematically targeting undocumented immigrants when impounding cars in an effort to boost municipal revenues.
Ron Gochez, a member of the steering committee for the Southern California Immigration Coalition, expressed limited praise for the LAPD's change but questioned why the department needed to impound a car if the driver had not been drinking.
"It's a step in the right direction, but it still falls short of what we're asking for," he said. "We're not against checkpoints. We want checkpoints to happen, we want drunk drivers off our streets. We just don't want people to be losing their cars who aren't drunk."