“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 a 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.