Members and supporters of the Free Our Cars Coalition gather in August in… (Christina House, For The…)
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck on Friday evening quietly rescinded the department's car impound policy, a controversial set of rules Beck put in place last year to be more lenient on immigrants in the country illegally but that a judge found violated state law.
The move marked the latest setback for Beck in the long-running battle over the impound rules. In an interview Saturday the chief reiterated his belief that the policy — called Special Order 7 — was legal and necessary, saying that the recent court ruling that struck down the impound rules "undermines the authority of the police department to regulate the conduct of its officers."
Beck declined to say whether lawyers for the city would appeal the decision by L.A. County Superior Court Judge Terry Green. That, Beck said, was a decision for City Atty. Mike Feuer. Beck, however, signaled strongly that an appeal was likely, saying he "looks forward to the next phase of the judicial process."
Despite his disagreement with the judge, Beck said he had no choice but to rescind the impound policy in order to comply with Green's finding that it could not stand because it was in conflict with the state's vehicle code. Prior to Beck's move, it had been widely expected that city lawyers would try to keep Special Order 7 in place during the lengthy appeals process by asking a state appeals court to set Green's ruling aside pending their decision.
A spokesman for Feuer did not return calls seeking comment on whether the city attorney would still request the stay of Green's ruling from the appellate court. Michael Kaufman, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has joined the city in defending the impound rules, said his group would do so with or without the city's help.
Under the terms of Special Order 7, if officers stopped an unlicensed driver who met several requirements — including having auto insurance, valid identification and no previous citations for unlicensed driving — officers could no longer invoke the part of the state vehicle code that allowed them to confiscate the vehicle for 30 days, a punishment that came with fines and charges often exceeding $1,200.
In a city with an estimated 400,000 immigrants who are in the country illegally and forbidden by state law from obtaining driver's licenses, Beck and the LAPD's civilian oversight board, which approved the policy, argued that Special Order 7 was needed for moral and practical reasons.
The 30-day holds, they said, unfairly burdened such drivers, who often are poor and risk having cars seized that they need to drive to work or take their children to school. Beck said he expected the policy would encourage unlicensed drivers to take steps such as buying insurance to avoid the monthlong holds.
"It's not so much that I am a dove on immigration," Beck said in an earlier interview with The Times. "It's that I'm a realist. I recognize that this is the population that I police. If I can take steps — legal steps — to make them a better population to police, then I will."
The union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers and Judicial Watch, a conservative-leaning watchdog organization based in Washington, sued over the policy, arguing that it improperly attempted to supersede the state's impound laws that give some discretion to officers on whether to use the 30-day hold on a car.
"I always believed that what the chief was doing was not the solution to a problem that I agree needs to be addressed," said Tyler Izen, president of the police union.
"Letting people drive without driver's licenses is reckless, and that's what he was trying to allow," Izen said.
Emphasizing that the union has not taken an official position on a bill passed this month by the state Legislature that would allow immigrants in the country illegally to receive licenses, Izen said, "We've made the decision that healthcare and education are humanitarian issues. We should make the decision whether a driver's license … is a humanitarian issue as well."
Beck issued a new directive Friday to replace the now-defunct impound rules. "The purpose of this notice is to provide guidance to officers when making a vehicle impound/removal decision concerning drivers without a valid license," he wrote on the department's internal computer network. In perhaps what was an indication that the city still plans to appeal Green's ruling, Beck added that officers should not adhere to Special Order 7 "until further notice."
The switch from the order returns some level of authority to officers when deciding on impounds but instructs them to take a common-sense approach spelled out in a legal principle called the Community Caretaking Doctrine. They should, Beck wrote, "take into account the 'totality of the circumstances' to determine whether an impound/removal is appropriate."
For example, Beck said, an impound is acceptable if there is no other way to prevent "the immediate and continued unlawful operation" of a car. However, according to the Caretaking Doctrine, if someone else in the car has a license or the unlicensed driver is already at his residence when he is pulled over, then the officer should not impound the car, Beck said.
The chief also tried to clarify for officers the multiple sections of the state vehicle code that authorize officers to use the 30-day hold in some cases and a less-severe impound in others, under which a driver can retrieve his car immediately.
Beck had said in the past that the various sections of the code were confusing and left unlicensed drivers at the mercy of individual officers, some of whom may take a more lenient approach than others.
"Officers should determine which statutory authority is most appropriate for the given circumstance," Beck wrote.