A conservative Washington, D.C. group has filed a lawsuit to block the Los Angeles Police Department's new impound policy, arguing it violates state law.
Judicial Watch is suing on behalf of an unnamed taxpayer to stop the LAPD's implementation of the new policy that allows some owners to reclaim their vehicles within one day after the drivers were cited for being unlicensed. Previous policy allowed a 30-day impound.
"This is yet another example of the Los Angeles Police Department's unlawful use of taxpayer dollars to further Los Angeles' status as a sanctuary city," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said of the policy contained in Special Order 7 by Chief Charlie Beck.
"Special Order 7 is illegal and dangerous. Unlicensed drivers - whether unlawfully present aliens or not - are a menace to public safety."
The new policy went into effect in late April, allowing unlicensed drivers whose vehicles are impounded to be reclaimed within one day if they have valid identification, proof of insurance and no prior misdemeanor convictions for driving without a license and were not involved in an accident.
If the driver fails to meet those standards, the vehicles will continue to be impounded for 30 days, at an expense of roughly $1,400.
The policy has been caught up in the larger debate over illegal immigration, as it is believed that many of the unlicensed drivers who were having their vehicles seized were undocumented. Immigrants' rights group argued the previous policy was unfair.
Judicial Watch has also sued the LAPD over its Special Order 40, the policy that prohibits officers from inquiring on the residency status of crime victims.
The new impound policy also has been challenged in a separate court action by the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
"The LAPPL lawsuit was prompted by concerns the new policy conflicts with state law," said union president Tyler Izen, who was not familiar with the Judicial Watch suit. "The League believes the new policy may subject LAPD officers to potential civil liability if they impound an unlicensed driver's car...and that driver goes on to cause a collision resulting in injury or death."
The policy has stirred wide debate around the state; last week, the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a legal opinion in support of the new policy.
The opinion, requested by state Sen. Kevin DeLeon, D-Los Angeles, states a police agency has the discretion to establish its own guidelines on the release of impounded vehicles in less than 30 days.
"I am pleased to read that California Attorney General Kamala Harris found our new procedure both legal and appropriate," Beck said. "This gives us further assurance that our revised procedure is on solid legal footing."
Beck developed the impound proposal, with the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as a way to offer incentives to drivers to comply with the law when it comes to having insurance and identification.
Joseph Billela, senior policy advocate at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, said his group supports Beck's policy change.
"We think this is a first step toward what is needed statewide," Billela said. "We think it doesn't go far enough to make sure there are protections for individuals who are good drivers.
"We think it is important as a way of rebuilding trust between the immigrant community and law enforcement."
However, Don Rosenberg of Westlake Village, whose son was killed in 2010 by an unlicensed driver in San Francisco, has appeared at several meetings in opposition to the policy.
"To me, it is clearly illegal," Rosenberg said in a recent interview. "State law is clear and cannot be trumped by a local law enforcement agency. Can you think of one traffic law that when a problem gets worse, they reduce the penalty? I think we should question why this is being done."