It has been at once amusing and saddening to witness the debate here in Los Angeles over how police officers should respond when, having made a traffic stop, they find the driver to be unlicensed. At issue is the decision an officer must make as to whether or not to impound the car as authorized by California state law and, if the car is impounded, for how long. It’s been amusing to see so many people twist themselves into legal and intellectual contortions in arguing that cars driven by illegal immigrants should not be impounded, and saddening to know that no matter how tenuous their grip may be on the legal and intellectual arguments, these people will prevail regardless. We’re talking about Los Angeles, after all, where political agendas often trump common sense and even the law.
In two recent columns (here and here), I’ve discussed LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s proposal to change the department’s policy governing how officers deal with cars driven by unlicensed drivers. Beck has maintained that impounding cars driven by unlicensed drivers, many of whom in Los Angeles are illegal immigrants, is “unfair.” Under a previous version of his proposed new policy, officers would have been required to wait for a “reasonable period of time,” whatever that might mean, for the driver to summon a licensed driver to whom the car would be released.
Faced with a level of backlash he clearly did not expect, Beck has added further modifications to his proposal, including the requirements that a licensed driver be “immediately” available to take charge of a stopped car, and that the unlicensed driver show valid identification and proof of insurance. Another requirement is that the unlicensed driver have no previous convictions for the same offense. All of these conditions must be met before a car can be released.
These changes may sound reasonable on first reading, but further examination is warranted. There will surely arise a question of the meaning of the word “immediately,” as will questions of what constitutes valid identification and proof of insurance. Insurance papers are easily forged, and police officers in the field have no access to any database that would allow them to verify that a policy is in effect. And Beck proposes that LAPD officers recognize Matricula Consular cards, issued by Mexican consulate offices in the United States, as valid identification.
This is laughable, as Chief Beck should be expected to know. Testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee in June 2003, Steven C. McCraw, assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Intelligence, addressed the question of Matricula Consular ID cards. “The U.S. Government has done an extensive amount of research on the Matricula Consular,” he said, “to assess its viability as a reliable means of identification. The Department of Justice and the FBI have concluded that the Matricula Consular is not a reliable form of identification, due to the non-existence of any means of verifying the true identity of the card holder.” His reasons for reaching this conclusion are many and varied, and they should call into question Beck’s blithe reassurances that LAPD officers will only release a car when they have verified the unlicensed driver’s identity.
And now another obstacle has been placed in the path of Beck’s quest for “fairness.” California’s Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides legal guidance to state lawmakers, has issued an opinion to the effect that when a police officer has impounded a car driven by an unlicensed driver, it should be held for 30 days rather than, as Chief Beck would have it, for as long as it takes the registered owner to come and retrieve it.