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Dec 2011
Mayor Villaraigosa's policy to end seizure of vehicles of unlicensed drivers panned

Last weekend, an unlicensed driver ran down a 60-year-old woman trying to cross the street in Panorama City, killing her.

The death renewed calls Monday to reverse a pending city policy to go easy on unlicensed drivers - many of them illegal immigrants - by not immediately impounding their cars.

"The tragic accident in Panorama City shows how the mayor's new policy can result in innocent people being injured or killed," said Paul M. Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, in a statement.

"The mayor's directive puts politics above public safety and should be rescinded."

Responding to pressure from immigrant-rights groups, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck have created a new policy to lift a 30-day impound for cars of unlicensed drivers.

The policy, expected to be enacted in January, would only impound the cars of drivers whose licenses were revoked or suspended, or who have a prior conviction for driving without a license.

The remainder - including the cars of illegal immigrants - would not be towed. Instead, they could be picked up by the registered owner or another licensed driver.

This could save the drivers thousands of dollars in impound and towing fees, which many poor families can't afford, defenders say.

"A lot of drivers can't get their licenses because they're undocumented, not because they don't know how to drive," said Gilbert Saucedo, a Los Angeles-based attorney working to ease city's car impound policy.

"When you take somebody's car, and they can't get it back for 30 days, they can't get to work. They can't get their kids to school. It's a huge burden."

Peter Sanders, a Villaraigosa spokesman, did not return numerous calls for comment.

Protecting public safety

It was before dawn Saturday when Patricia Ellen Riedy of Wildwood, Mo., was killed by an unlicensed driver in Panorama City, police said.

Martha Cruz, 36, of Panorama City, was driving a black Ford Explorer and struck the woman outside a crosswalk on Woodman Avenue, police said.

Cruz was not arrested, but she was given a citation to appear in court. Her car was impounded during the investigation, police said. The Los Angeles police union said the accident underscores the danger of allowing unlicensed drivers to escape car impounds.

Of the 40,000 fatal car crashes across the nation each year, one in five involve an unlicensed driver, according to an American Automobile Association Study cited by the union.

In addition, unlicensed drivers are nearly five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed ones, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Weber with the police officers' union said that is precisely why the state enacted the 30-day impound law for unlicensed motorists. Opponents, however, maintain it was to punish drunk drivers.

Weber said the mayor ignored that law - giving free reign to unlicensed drivers and illegal immigrants, rather than enforce impounds designed to protect public safety.

"An unlicensed driver willing to ignore the law is, at least temporarily, less likely to further violate this law because he or she will not have access to the impounded vehicle," Weber said. "The cost and inconvenience of recovering an impounded vehicle discourages people without licenses from driving."

Unfair targeting

Immigrants rights groups, however, say immigrants must drive anyway, and are unfairly singled out by the impound. They also question studies that show unlicensed drivers are more dangerous than anyone else.

What's needed, they say, is a state law to get them properly regulated and licensed.

"It's a basic moral fairness issue," said Zach Hoover, executive director of L.A. Voice, a coalition of churches, synagogues and mosques working to overturn the 30-day impound. "Currently, the punishment does not fit the crime."

Others say no punishment will undo the damage caused by unlicensed and uninsured motorists, sometimes permanently.

A year ago, Don Rosenberg's 25-year-old son Drew was killed in San Francisco by an unlicensed driver whose car was impounded by authorities - then released.

The city's prosecutors had returned a one-ton weapon in which to kill his son, he said, after they had taken it from an unlicensed motorist for driving against a one-way street.

Now he has written to Los Angeles officials to persuade them to reconsider the policy to not impound cars of unlicensed drivers.

"I think it's criminally negligent. And the police chief, he should be fired for even considering it, it's so outrageous," said Rosenberg, 58, of Westlake Village. "It's violating the law.

"(My son) was a good kid. (His death) didn't have to happen, because the driver should never have been on the road. He was caught, and they let him go."



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