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Groups call for halt to impounding of unlicensed drivers' cars

August 07, 2013|By Kate Linthicum
  • Twenty-month-old Yaretzie Vasquez of Baldwin Park attends a news conference Wednesday outside the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration with her mother and sister. The Free Our Cars Coalition announced a campaign to change towing and impound practices that it says hurt immigrant families.
Twenty-month-old Yaretzie Vasquez of Baldwin Park attends a news conference… (Christina House / For The…)

Reyes Juarez was on his way home from his job at a jewelry store in Whittier two years ago when he was stopped at a police checkpoint. Officers were looking for intoxicated or unlicensed drivers.

Juarez produced his car's registration and evidence of insurance, but as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, he did not have a license. He was handed a $600 ticket, and a tow truck hauled away his Ford Escort for a 30-day sentence in an impound lot.

Juarez was one of several immigrants who spoke out at a news conference Wednesday against impoundments of unlicensed drivers. Although state lawmakers and more than a dozen cities and counties have passed legislation geared at reducing the number of such impoundments, immigrant rights groups say the practice is still common in much of Los Angeles County and unfairly targets the undocumented, who cannot obtain licenses in California.

The Free Our Cars coalition, which held the news conference, complains that impounding the cars of unlicensed drivers puts an unfair economic burden on immigrants who are often already struggling.

Juarez, whose car was impounded in Whittier, did not have the cash to pay the $1,200 fee to get his car out of the impound lot, so he left it there. For six months he and his wife were carless, making commutes to work and trips to pick up their six children at school nearly impossible, he said. "It was so much stress," he said.

A 2011 state law prohibits police agencies in California from freely impounding cars from sober but unlicensed drivers who are stopped at drunk-driving checkpoints. Police are now required to give the person who has been pulled over a chance to contact a licensed driver to take the car.

Similar policy changes at the Los Angeles Police Department shortened the amount of time cars must be kept in impound lots if a licensed driver cannot be located. The changes drew lawsuits from a national group claiming the policy is unfair to taxpayers as well as the police officers union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

The number of vehicles impounded by the LAPD have fallen dramatically since the new rules were put in place. Earlier this year, police said impounds were down 39% last year compared with 2011.

But immigrant rights groups say impounds for unlicensed drivers are common across the county. At the news conference, Alma Castaqeda said her husband had his car impounded after being stopped in Baldwin Park for a routine traffic violation. It cost the family $1,300 to get it back. 

Father Mike Guitierrez of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Baldwin Park said he hears about such impounds at least every week. Guitierrez and the rest of the Free Our Cars coalition are asking immigrants to share their stories about impounds on a free hot line and website, in hopes of pressuring police departments around the county to make changes. 


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Twitter: @katelinthicum

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