LOS ANGELES – A state court determined Friday that a Los Angeles Police Department policy that makes it easier for unlicensed drivers to keep their cars instead of having them impounded after police stops is lawful and can remain in place.
The policy has been supported by the city attorney and immigrant rights groups, who said the old impound policy was unfair to immigrants who cannot obtain a driver's license.
The 13-page ruling by California's 2nd District Court of Appeal found that the policy is "within the wide discretion of the police chief" and that challengers of the policy — a taxpayer and the police union — lacked the legal standing, or ability to demonstrate sufficient connection to or harm from the law, in this case because the policy isn't wasteful or illegal.
"Here, Special Order 7 implements state law; it does not create a new law. Use of police resources to enforce the Vehicle Code does not constitute waste," the ruling states.
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck issued the directive, which went into effect in 2012, allowing some unlicensed drivers who are stopped to produce a vehicle's registration and proof of insurance to avoid having their cars impounded for 30 days. Depending on their record, a licensed driver can then pick up their vehicle.
After Special Order 7 was implemented, the number of vehicles impounded in Los Angeles decreased from 28,796 in 2011 to 16,242 in 2012, court documents state.
The Los Angeles Police Department said Friday that the department was pleased by the court's decision allowing it to provide direction to its officers on the issue. "Maintaining the public's trust is improved when the communities we serve believe the actions of our officers are fair, consistent and constitutional in each neighborhood of the city," the department said.
Attorney Richard Levine, who represented the Los Angeles Police Protective League in the case, said the union was disappointed by the ruling reversing the trial court's finding. Levine said the union would be evaluating various legal options in the next weeks after taking the time for attorneys and the board to fully examine the ruling. Options include filing a petition for review with the California Supreme Court or seeking a rehearing in the Court of Appeal, he said.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents more than 9,900 sworn Los Angeles police officers, sued in 2012, arguing the policy subjected officers to "professional and legal conflict, as well as civil liabilities" when enforcing uniform impoundment regulations. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge sided with the union and struck down the policy in August 2013, agreeing that it violated the state's vehicle code.
Still, for most of the time since its inception, Special Order 7 has essentially remained in place. Aside from a couple months after the lower court ruling, the policy was allowed by the state court to continue while it examined the case's merits.
Since the case filing, legislators of the nation's most populous state passed a law that will allow immigrants living in the country illegally to apply for licenses starting Jan. 2, in a bid to make roads safer and ease fears for more than a million people to get behind the wheel. A large number of those immigrants live in Los Angeles. And it is unclear how the law might affect the LAPD policy, for example, in cases where a person fails their driver's license exams but fulfills Special Order 7 requirements to avoid having their car impounded.
Still, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, which went to court in support of the city's policy, praised the ruling.
"The decision recognizes that Special Order 7 does not conflict with existing laws, nor does it undermine the vehicle code," said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, in a statement. "What Special Order 7 does is simply direct officers on how to apply the vehicle impound laws without creating unfair hardship on poor immigrant residents who were too often disproportionately affected by harsh 30-day impounds, or creating the perception of profiling of Latinos in an effort to impound vehicles."