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LAPD chief backs driver's licenses for illegal immigrants

February 22, 2012 |  3:18 pm

Charlie_BeckWading into a politically charged debate, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said California should issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

The chief becomes one of the most prominent local figures to support the idea and his stance is certain to further inflame critics who are already angry at Beck’s efforts to liberalize the rules on how his officers impound the cars of unlicensed drivers.

“My personal belief is that they should be able to” have licenses, Beck said in response to a question during a meeting with Times’ reporters and editorial writers. “The reality is that all the things that we’ve done – ‘we’ being the state of California – over the last 14, 16 years have not reduced the problem one iota, haven’t reduced undocumented aliens driving without licenses. So we have to look at what we’re doing. When something doesn’t work over and over and over again, my view is that you should reexamine it to see if there is another way that makes more sense.”

Beck said he does not believe licenses for illegal immigrants should be identical to regular ones. Saying “it could be a provisional license, it could be a nonresident license,” he acknowledged that state officials would have to find ways to address widely held concerns that offering licenses to people in the country illegally could make it easier for terrorists go undetected.

For Beck, however, such concerns are outweighed by what he said would be improved safety on California roads and the ability of police to identify the people they encounter. “Why wouldn’t you want to put people through a rigorous testing process? Why wouldn’t you want to better identify people who are going to be here?” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. And we could increase safety on the roads. When you make things illegal you cause a lot of other things by chain reaction.”

Beck, for example, said he would expect the number of hit-and-run accidents to decrease if illegal immigrants were licensed, because illegal immigrant drivers would not have to fear being caught without a license at accidents.

Beck’s stance on the issue stems from his push in recent months to make controversial changes in the LAPD’s vehicle impound rules for unlicensed drivers. Because illegal immigrants cannot receive licenses in California, they are presumed to make up a disproportionate percentage of the state’s unlicensed drivers and, Beck believes, have been unfairly affected by the current impound protocols.

Currently, officers can opt between two parts of the state vehicle code when impounding an unlicensed driver’s vehicle. One allows an owner to retrieve the car from the impound lot immediately, while the other keeps it impounded for 30 days – a delay that comes with fees and fines that typically exceed $1,200. Under Beck’s proposed changes, officers would be required to use the more lenient approach when impounding cars of unlicensed drivers who have auto insurance, a legitimate form of identification and no previous convictions for unlicensed driving. (People driving on suspended or revoked licenses or those who do not satisfy the department's requirements would have their cars impounded with the 30-day hold.)

Beck has defended the proposed changes against angry rebukes from people who say the new rules would essentially reward people for breaking the law and allow potentially dangerous drivers to remain on the roads. The department is delaying the new changes until city officials can review a recent legal opinion from state lawyers that called into question the legality of the moves.


Op-Ed: LAPD's impound dilemma

Possible changes to LAPD impound policy ignites tempers

Legality of LAPD Chief Beck's proposed impound rules questioned

--Joel Rubin

Photo: Chief Charlie Beck. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times