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.
This, too, claimed a succession of speakers at a recent meeting of the L.A. police commission, places an unfair burden on illegal immigrants, who cannot legally obtain driver’s licenses in California but rely on cars to get to and from work. Several of these speakers were attorneys for such groups as the National Lawyers Guild, one of whom had the crust to claim that the California statute that authorizes officers to impound cars driven by unlicensed drivers was actually aimed at drunk drivers, not those who are merely unlicensed. You have to be a lawyer, and a very liberal one, to look past the plain language of the law and find that it means what it doesn’t say and says what it doesn’t mean.
But again, all this debate is merely an exercise, one small bump on the road to erasing whatever distinctions that might remain between a U.S. citizen and anyone from anywhere who manages to evade detection while slipping into the country. And now, Chief Beck has endorsed granting driver’s licenses to illegal aliens in California, advocating what would be yet another in a long series of state or local accommodations to the failure of federal immigration enforcement.
When all is said and done Chief Beck and his allies in this effort will to some degree or another be satisfied with the outcome, and whatever burdens that remain on illegal immigrants in Los Angeles will be incrementally eased as time goes on and those who oppose the trend grow weary and give up the struggle or abandon the city altogether.
We are witnessing the gradual enactment of a separate foreign policy for the city of Los Angeles, albeit one that the current administration in Washington surely would find untroubling. In this policy we are asked to hold it “fair” that people who should not be here be allowed to keep the cars they should not drive so they can get to the jobs they should not have. Why would anyone argue with that?