When the vote finally came, the only question that remained was whether or not it would be unanimous.
It was a foregone conclusion that the Los Angeles police commission would rubber-stamp LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s plan to all but ignore the California law that allows police officers to impound for 30 days any car they find to be driven by someone without a driver’s license. In the end, only one commissioner voted to oppose the measure, and in doing so he pulled away the veil of legitimacy and legality behind which Beck and the other four commissioners continue to hide.
The new policy, soon to be published in a “special order” to all LAPD officers, authorizes a 30-day impound only in those cases in which the unlicensed driver 1) has no valid identification, 2) has no proof of insurance for the car, 3) is driving an unregistered car, and 4) has no previous misdemeanor conviction for driving without a license. (A fifth condition, reluctantly added under pressure from the lone dissenting commissioner, demands that the driver have no outstanding warrant or record of failure to appear in court for driving without a license.)
On first reading the new policy sounds reasonable, but when one examines the underlying facts it becomes clear that the chief’s intent is that very few unlicensed drivers will lose their cars for 30 days, even those with multiple prior offenses. Chief Beck insists that unlicensed drivers must have valid identification in order to avoid a 30-day impound, but then says that officers will accept Matricula Consular cards, issued by consulates of foreign governments, as valid ID. As I wrote in my previous column, these cards are not a reliable form of identification, as explained by a top FBI official in testimony before a House subcommittee in 2003. Beck has also said officers will accept birth certificates, which of course bear no photograph, fingerprint, or any other data an officer might use to determine if the document is both genuine and belonging to the person who presents it.
The requirement for proof of insurance is also a sham. The California Department of Motor Vehicles will issue a registration certificate if proof that an insurance policy has been applied for. If that policy is later denied or canceled, the registration sticker still appears on the license plate, leaving police officers with no way of knowing the car’s registration has been revoked. And even if an officer discovers this fact through a computer check, all a stopped driver need do is present another application for insurance, the validity of which the officer has no way of verifying.
But perhaps the biggest insult to common sense is the new impound policy’s requirement that a driver have no previous misdemeanor conviction for driving without a license. The requirement that drivers in California be licensed is codified in Section 12500(a) of the state’s vehicle code, and a violation is alternately held as a misdemeanor or infraction in court. In practice, misdemeanor prosecutions under the section are extremely rare, especially in Los Angeles. A driver’s record may indicate several previous citations for driving without a license, but unless at least one of them was prosecuted as a misdemeanor and resulted in a conviction, that driver would not face a 30-day impound if he satisfied the other requirements of the new policy.
Alan Skobin, the lone “no” vote on the police commission, asked why such a serial scofflaw should benefit from the new policy. LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore, who has served as the front-man for the policy change, replied that if prior infraction convictions were used as a disqualifier for lenience, then too many drivers would be subject to having their cars impounded. In other words, because so many people break the law, we must blind ourselves to what the law actually says and instead interpret it to mean what we wish it to mean.