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Legality of LAPD Chief Beck's proposed impound rules questioned

February 13, 2012 |  7:05 pm

With the Los Angeles Police Department on the verge of implementing controversial changes to when officers impound vehicles of unlicensed drivers, the legality of those changes was thrown into some question Monday by a nonpartisan state agency.

The Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides legal opinions to state lawmakers, concluded that once a police officer opts to impound the car of a driver who has never been issued a driver’s license the officer should invoke the part of the state’s vehicle code that requires the car to be impounded for 30 days.

That would seem to conflict with the changes to impound rules that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck is scheduled to present Tuesday to the L.A. Police Commission, which oversees the department.

For people who have not been issued a license, but who have auto insurance, some sort of valid identification, and no previous convictions for unlicensed driving, Beck wants his officers to use a section of the vehicle code that would allow the owner of the vehicle to retrieve it from the impound lot as soon as the following day. A driver who does not satisfy those terms would have his vehicle impounded for the 30 days--a delay that often includes fines and fees exceeding $1,200.

Under the new LAPD rules, someone caught driving with a revoked or suspended license would have his vehicle impounded under the more stringent section of the vehicle code.

The Police Protective League, which represents LAPD rank-and-file officers and has led weeks of angry protest against Beck’s proposed changes, released the Bureau’s legal opinion, which was written for a state lawmaker who had inquired about the impound rules.

The league and other critics have argued that the proposed changes were too lenient and violated state laws requiring drivers to be licensed. Beck, in turn, has argued that barring aggravating circumstances, a 30-day impound is too harsh a penalty. The debate quickly became entangled in the incendiary issue of illegal immigration since illegal immigrants in California cannot receive licenses and so make up the bulk of the people impacted by these rules.

In many situations, officers have the discretion over whether to impound a person’s car.  Beck and other officials have said that the changes to the rules were meant to give officers a clearer understanding of when to impound and which section of the vehicle code to use.

It was not immediately clear what effect, if any, the bureau’s opinion would have on the LAPD’s changes. LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said the department was reviewing the legal opinion but emphasized that he believes the department is on solid legal footing. "The department has worked very closely with the Los Angeles city attorney's office in the crafting of the revised protocols and believes those protocols are lawful," he said.

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--Joel Rubin

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