Los Angeles police last week joined a growing list of law enforcement agencies across the state in changing policies for impounding vehicles of unlicensed drivers, a shift prompted by complaints that illegal immigrants were being unfairly targeted at DUI checkpoints.
For years, activists and some city officials have charged that police are increasingly punishing illegal immigrants who cannot get driver's licenses by towing and sometimes impounding their cars for 30 days. Once a car is impounded, fees to release the vehicles can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
"We don't think the police should be able to take people's cars away because they don't have proper paper work," said Julia Wallace of the South Central Neighborhood Council, which pushed the city of Los Angeles to change its policies. "The punishment doesn't fit the crime."
On Friday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said that police would be required to try to contact the registered owner of a vehicle stopped at a checkpoint. If the owner is licensed and can arrive in a reasonable amount of time, the car will not be impounded. If the owner is unlicensed, but a licensed driver is in the car, that person may be permitted to take it.
"This is the right thing to do," Beck said. "There's a fairness issue here."
Activists on Saturday held a news conference calling on the L.A. County Sheriff's Department to make similar changes and said they now plan on pushing state legislators to change the law that allows a 30-day impound.
Several other cities have already changed their rules.
In San Francisco, officers who stop unlicensed drivers are instructed to give them 20 minutes to find a licensed and insured driver before towing their cars. In Oakland, officers can give motorists permission to park their car or have a licensed driver pick it up.
And in Cathedral City, officers now tow cars only if a motorist's license is suspended or if the individual has been caught multiple times driving without a license.
Critics denounce the policy changes, saying they threaten public safety and only encourage people to break the law.
"It's not clear to me why a police agency would feel it needs to give a break to people just because they happen to be here illegally and have no other way to get to work," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks reduced immigration to the United States. "It really undermines the state's decision not to issue licenses" to illegal immigrants.
A study last year by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley found that police departments across the state seized tens of thousands of cars from unlicensed drivers between 2007 and 2009, with numbers increasing each year.
And a sample of checkpoints submitted to the state Office of Traffic Safety showed that during a three-month period in 2009, nearly 4,000 vehicles — or 55% — were impounded for unlicensed drivers while only 14% were impounded for such things as driving under the influence and criminal warrants.
Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia said this was a growing problem in his city.
"We saw an escalation of vehicles being towed and the hardship that it was creating for families in our community," said Garcia, who helped push for a policy change in Coachella. Those affected, he said, were most often migrant workers, not "individuals who were DUI, who had suspended licenses or individuals that were being sought out by the law."
In February, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department's Indio Station, which patrols the city of Coachella and other cities in eastern Riverside County, agreed to give unlicensed drivers at DUI checkpoints 30 minutes to find a legal driver to avoid an impound.
The change followed several months of meetings between city officials, Sheriff's Department officials and representatives from local churches.
"We started to hear from our congregation," said Carmelo Calderon, ministries coordinator at Our Lady of Soledad parish in Coachella. "A lot of the women would come and say, 'I can't participate. I don't have a vehicle.'"
"Our community is made up of mostly migrant workers," he said. "A lot of them are undocumented, yet they're given jobs to work at the hotels, in the gardens, in the fields. They're just driving to work and back.... It's OK if they get a ticket, but that impound for 30 days is hard to explain. It was crushing the families."
During a hearing on the issue, Rosa Ramirez told sheriff's officials and city leaders that her family's Ford Ranger was impounded last year after her husband was pulled over for a traffic violation and didn't have a license. Her husband was arrested for not having an ID and deported to Mexicali days later, she said.
When she went to retrieve the pickup, she was told at the impound lot that they would hold the car for 30 days and that she would have to pay $2,000 to get it back.