A state appellate court won’t make the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) change its vehicle impound policy, which helps undocumented immigrants by ordering officers not to take advantage of state law that lets them grab an unlicensed driver’s ride for an expensive 30 days.
But on January 1, a new California law might give the ruling a whole new dynamic when the state allows undocumented immigrants to apply for specially-marked driver’s licenses. There are an estimated 400,000 immigrants in Los Angeles who don’t have legal status and their vehicles have been a convenient point of attack by conservatives.
A three-judge panel of California’s Second District Court of Appeal made its unanimous ruling last week, four months after giving a hard time to plaintiffs during oral arguments. The Los Angeles Times wrote in August that Justice Elizabeth Grimes questioned why the conservative group Judicial Watch, supposedly representing a single affected taxpayer, was participating in a case that didn’t involve the sorts of things that qualify taxpayer participation. “I don't catch a whiff of illegal or wasteful,” she said.
The justices also told the Los Angeles Police Protective League it seemed inappropriate for the police union to ask the court to adjudicate an in-house policy dispute between them and their bosses. The police rank-and-file said they wanted the flexibility and power to use the 30-day impound in the field.
But in 2012, then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck decided that the law had a discriminatory effect in Los Angeles, with its disproportionate number of undocumented residents. He thought it encouraged rousting people for punishment and didn’t want his officers relating to the community in that fashion.
Beck issued Special Order 7, which directs officers to release a vehicle to another licensed driver as long as it is insured. It also lets unlicensed drivers get their cars back without waiting, and paying for, the full 30 days. L.A. joined a small group of cities that have dialed back the 30-day impound. Impounds immediately dropped 43.6% in a year, from 28,796 to 16,242.
Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit challenging Beck’s decision in Los Angeles Superior Court and Judge Terry Green agreed with them. KPCC reported he called Special Order 7 “a real game changer” that improperly modifies or contradicts state vehicle law.
It’s hard to say that Judicial Watch attorney Paul Orfanedes missed the mark by much when he noted before the appellate court, “The Legislature wanted to say to everyone in the state, if you don't have a license your vehicle will be impounded. . . . Los Angeles has thumbed its nose at that.”
Lawmakers may very well have wanted to play hardball with undocumented immigrants, but the justices pointed out that they wrote a law that gave law enforcement authorities discretion, which Chief Beck properly exercised.
Justice Grimes, hinting that this case might not be the proper vehicle for rough-housing over racial politics, asked the Protective League attorney:
“What possible harm could come to the league or to the officers from following Special Order 7? They can't sleep at night? Why does the league have a beef with this? What's it to you?”