The Los Angeles Police Department will soon start ignoring California state law, which requires police to impound the vehicles of unlicensed drivers for 30 days.
The majority of unlicensed motorists in Los Angeles are immigrants who are in the country illegally and have low-income jobs. The LAPD says the state's impound law is unfair because it limits their ability to get to their jobs and imposes a steep fine to get their car back.
As long as drivers can produce some form of I.D., proof of insurance and vehicle registration, they'll be allowed to keep their car. Police Chief Charlie Beck insists that it's simply leveling the playing field.
"It's about fairness. It's about equal application of the law," Beck told a Los Angeles TV station earlier this month.
Opponents of Beck's decision are furious and refer to studies showing unlicensed drivers are among the most dangerous on the road. Indeed, a 2011 AAA study titled "Unlicensed to Kill" finds they are five times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes and more likely to flee the scene of a crime.
The decision has angered Don Rosenberg, a resident of Los Angeles County, who lost his 25-year old son, Drew, in a 2010 accident caused by an unlicensed driver in San Francisco, a city with lax impound policies. The driver, who tried fleeing the scene, had previously been pulled over but was allowed to retrieve his car after a short time, months before the accident.
"It doesn't matter to me who killed my son-- what their nationality was. It was the fact that if the law were followed, he'd be alive today," Rosenberg told Fox News.
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley wrote Chief Beck, saying his policy would be "invalid" in light of state law, which states a vehicle "shall be impounded." But supporters of Beck's decision say, regardless of the law, he's doing the right thing for illegal immigrants who cannot yet obtain driver's licenses here.
"A low-income person doesn't have the ability to pay the fees after 30 days to get their car back," said Cardinal Roger Mahony, former Archbishop of Los Angeles and an immigration activist. "Basically, we're just creating more punitive problems for them."
The L.A. Police Commission voted in favor of the new policy 4-1 last month. The LAPD says officers will begin implementing it in a matter of weeks. The city attorney has also sided with Beck's decision.
Immigrant advocates say the controversy highlights the need to provide provisional driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
Don Rosenberg says he'd favor that, as long as the police enforce state law by impounding unlicensed drivers' cars when pulled over. But he believes that the city is pandering to the Latino community and doesn't hold out hope that the policy will change anytime soon.
"It's more important that people who are in the country illegally get to drive than it is that people who are here get to live," he said.