Things in Los Angeles have reached the point that illegal aliens - people who by all rights ought not to be living here in the first place - are nonetheless able to exert sufficient influence on politicians that public policy is altered to suit their desires. Witness the debate taking place (if one can truly call it a debate; the conclusion is foregone) over the impounding of cars driven by unlicensed drivers.
California law authorizes police officers to impound cars found to be driven by unlicensed drivers. It further authorizes the storage of those cars for 30 days so as to discourage the unlicensed drivers from returning to the roads. Under direction from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck is weighing a policy change for his department that would require officers, who having stopped an unlicensed driver, to allow him time to summon a licensed driver to the scene and release the car to him. This proposed change in policy was discussed at a Dec. 13 meeting of the Los Angeles police commission, the five-member civilian panel that oversees the LAPD. That meeting, which can be viewed here, was remarkable for its near-total obfuscation of the impetus behind the proposed change, which is to make Los Angeles more hospitable to illegal aliens.
There was a time in California and indeed the entire country when the law affected the number of illegal aliens coming over the border. How quaint that notion seems now, for today it is the number that affects the law. There are approximately 600,000 illegal aliens living in the city of Los Angeles, or about 15 percent of the total population. For the time being, California law does not allow non-citizens to obtain driver's licenses, but many illegal aliens choose to risk the consequences and drive anyway. When they are stopped for a driving infraction and found to be unlicensed, they are cited and their cars are impounded in accordance with the Vehicle Code, which draws no distinctions between U.S. citizens who for whatever reason fail to obtain driver's licenses and illegal aliens who are prohibited from doing so. Advocates for illegal aliens claim that enforcement of the laws requiring driver's licenses and the consequent impoundment of cars place an undue burden on otherwise law-abiding people.
The illegal alien lobby has no better friend than Mayor Villaraigosa, who earlier this year put the camel's nose into the tent on the issue of impounding cars driven by unlicensed drivers. At the mayor's urging, the LAPD instituted a policy that allowed sober but unlicensed driver discovered at a sobriety checkpoint to call for a licensed driver to take charge of his car and thereby avoid having it impounded. The proposed new policy would extend this procedure to all traffic stops.
"It's a fairness issue," Chief Beck told the Los Angeles Times. "There is a vast difference between someone driving without a license because they cannot legally be issued one and someone driving after having their license revoked."
Indeed there is, and those differences are already recognized in California law, specifically in the punishments prescribed for each offense. But in seeking "fairness," or his idea of it, the chief ignores the specific language of state law as it pertains to the seizure of cars from unlicensed drivers. Section 14607.4(f) of the California Vehicle Code reads as follows:
It is necessary and appropriate to take additional steps to prevent unlicensed drivers from driving, including the civil forfeiture of vehicles used by unlicensed drivers. The state has a critical interest in enforcing its traffic laws and in keeping unlicensed drivers from illegally driving. Seizing the vehicles used by unlicensed drivers serves a significant governmental and public interest, namely the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of Californians from the harm of unlicensed drivers, who are involved in a disproportionate number of traffic incidents, and the avoidance of the associated destruction and damage to lives and property.
It's worth noting that in 2008 the city of Los Angeles was one of several cities and counties named as defendants in a federal civil lawsuit that challenged the current impound policy. The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, a decision affirmed by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a court not widely known for being a friend to law enforcement. In so ruling, the Court stated, "This limited application [of the impound authority in the California Vehicle Code] accords with the California legislature's determination that such a temporary forfeiture is warranted to protect Californians from the harm caused by unlicensed drivers - a determination we have no basis to reject."
And yet now the LAPD's chief, based on his own - and the mayor's of course - sense of "fairness," rejects this same determination.
So how "fair" will this new policy be to those who come to suffer for it? Just as I sat down to write this column I came across this story of a traffic accident in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. A 60-year-old woman, Patricia Ellen Riedy of Wildwood, Mo., was struck and killed by car driven by an unlicensed driver, 36-year-old Martha Cruz. The story makes no mention of Ms. Cruz's immigration status, though one might draw an inference based on her surname. But whether a citizen or not, she had no right to be behind the wheel of the car that killed the unfortunate Ms. Riedy, whose survivors might offer instruction to Chief Beck on what is "fair."
The people of the state of California, through their elected representatives, have decided that people who drive while unlicensed, whatever the reason, should have their cars impounded. It is not for the mayor of Los Angeles or his chief of police to decide otherwise.