Posted on August 9, 2013

Immigrants Rights Groups Urge Changes in Car Impound Policies

Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2013

Immigrant rights groups are calling on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other police agencies to stop impounding the cars of unlicensed drivers.

A 2011 state law requires police at drunk-driving checkpoints to give unlicensed drivers the chance to call someone with a license to take the car before it is towed.

But that law does not apply to routine traffic stops, and activists complain that unlicensed drivers across the county are losing their cars after being pulled over for minor infractions, such as making a wrong turn or driving without a seat belt. In many cases, the cars are impounded for 30 days at a fee of more than $1,000.

Activists say impound policies unfairly target immigrants here illegally, who cannot obtain licenses in California. At a news conference Wednesday held by a group called the Free Our Cars Coalition, Mexican immigrant Alma Castaneda said she and her husband have had their cars impounded five times for unlicensed driving. Three times they have not had the cash to pay the impound fee, she said, and have been forced to give up their cars to the lot.

Castaneda and other members of the coalition are asking immigrants to share their stories about impounds on a website in hopes of pressuring police departments around the county to make changes.

That is how immigrant rights groups persuaded the Los Angeles Police Department to make major changes to its impound policy, said Zach Hoover, a Baptist minister who leads an alliance of religious and community groups called LA Voice.

The number of vehicles impounded by the LAPD fell 39% last year from the year before, after the department enacted rules prohibiting officers from seizing cars at routine traffic stops if a licensed driver was available to take the car, according to department officials. The rule that required cars to be kept in impound lots for 30 days was also changed; now drivers can retrieve their vehicles as soon as they pay the impound fee.

The new rules drew lawsuits from the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, and from a national group called Judicial Watch that said the policy is unfair to taxpayers. {snip}