Controversial new rules that limit when Los Angeles police officers can impound the vehicles of unlicensed drivers have left officers confused and contributed to a dramatic drop in the number of seized vehicles, the Los Angeles Police Department reported Tuesday.
Last year, police impounded 19,944 vehicles, a 39% decline compared with 2011, Deputy Chief Michael Downing said during a meeting of the Police Commission, the board that oversees the LAPD.
One reason for the tumble, Downing said, was Special Order 7 — the new policy LAPD Chief Charlie Beck pushed through early last year. Under it, officers were instructed to continue with impounds, but ordered not to place onerous 30-day holds on vehicles if an unlicensed driver met several requirements — including having auto insurance, valid identification and no previous citations for unlicensed driving.
Instead of the monthlong impounds, which often come with fees and fines that exceed $1,200, officers were told to use a less harsh part of the state's vehicle code when impounding vehicles that allows owners to collect vehicles immediately from impound lots. And, officers were told to forgo impounding a vehicle altogether in cases in which a licensed driver is in the car or able to arrive "immediately."
Beck and commissioners billed the changes as a fairness issue for illegal immigrants, who are widely presumed to make up the bulk of unlicensed drivers in California since state law forbids them from being issued licenses.
The old policy, Beck said at the time, was too vague and gave officers little direction on whether to impound a vehicle and, if they opted to do so, whether they should impose the 30-day hold.
Downing, however, said Tuesday that officer confusion has persisted with the new impound rules, including when to invoke the monthlong impound. Not wanting to improperly use the more serious impound, officers "tend to default" to the more lenient type, Downing said. As a result, the overall decline in impounds is due almost entirely to a drop in 30-day holds, according to department figures. Similar changes to the impound rules at drunk driving checkpoints have also contributed to the decline, Downing added.
Officers have also made mistakes dealing with licenses from other countries and inaccurately reading records from the Department of Motor Vehicles on drivers' past infractions, Downing said, adding that the department plans to roll out additional training for officers in hopes of clearing up the confusion.
"This is a very complicated field of law, actually much too complicated. What we've done is train to the complexities of the law and it takes a while," Beck said in comments to reporters after the commission meeting.
The changes generated strong opposition from those opposed to granting rights to illegal immigrants as well as critics who warned the new policy would jeopardize public safety by allowing people with untested driving skills to remain behind the wheel and said the department was overstepping its authority by being lenient with people in violation of the state law that requires licenses.
The department report to the commission showed that the number of hit-and-run accidents and fatal or serious collisions remained flat last year. When pushing for the new impound rules, Beck said he believed they would lead to safer, more responsible driving on city streets since unlicensed drivers would have an incentive to buy insurance and would not feel as compelled to flee the scene of accidents.
On Tuesday, Beck said it was too soon to draw any conclusions about Special Order 7.
"We need to continue to look to see if we … in fact create a group of drivers that are more likely to have insurance, that are more likely to have identification, that are less likely to be involved in hit and runs," Beck said. "Do we make the roads safer with this policy? It's just too early to tell at this point. Just changing the policy of a government agency doesn't immediately affect people's behavior. It takes some time. I would anticipate seeing a change in the next year or so."