The issue of car impounds in the Los Angeles area has made its way into the city’s mayoral debate with candidate Eric Garcetti recently telling the Los Angeles Times that he wants to “end the practice of automatically impounding the cars of unlicensed undocumented immigrants”. For Latino residents of Long Beach, this is more than a political matter. It’s a racial and practical matter. Recently Politic365 obtained a report from the National Lawyer’s Guild of Los Angeles (NLG-LA) adding to the voices accusing one particular deputy of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department of racial profiling and denying the due process of Latino immigrant drivers. Deputy X, as he is named in the report based on in interviews conducted earlier this year at a legal clinic, has seemingly targeted cars fitting a stereotypical profile of the unlicensed immigrant driver: Latinos driving old vehicles in low-income neighborhoods, Latinos driving cars with religious objects or air fresheners hanging from mirrors, all in the name of enforcing California Vehicle Code (CVC) § 14602.6, giving police limited authority to impound cars for 30 days when the individual has never been licensed or the driver’s license has been suspended or revoked.
Most of the subjects interviewed were given no probable cause for being pulled over and many of them were stopped while engaged in routine practices, like dropping off or picking up their children from school. In fact, the principal of a local school, Mr. Chris Lund of Roosevelt Elementary School filed a complaint on behalf of 27 parents from his school for harassment and subsequently was harassed by Deputy X. Other interviewees said the Deputy stopped them to give them a warning,“check” their infant car seat, or issue a violation for a minor problem like a cracked tail light. Some of the cars impounded weren’t even being driven. They were legally parked in front of their own homes.
The NLG-LA says the stops and subsequent 30 day impounds are unconstitutional, saying police cannot just stop someone to check the status of their license. They need probable cause. The only cause the NLG-LA can see is bias. According to the report during one stop Deputy “X” stated, “Shut up or I will have you sent to Mexico.” When another driver explained that she did not have a license because she was in the process of applying for a license through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Deputy stated she had “given her spot away”, that she would not be able to obtain a drivers license and that she “wouldn’t be getting [her] DREAM Act anymore. In another case, Deputy X yelled at a woman with limited English language proficiency who had a valid license from Honduras, “Why don’t you have any papers?” and “Why don’t you speak English?” before snatching the car keys from her.
While having your car impounded may not seem like such a big deal to some, the impact on the Latino community in Long Beach, California has been great. The cost to get an impounded car returned after thirty days can cost $1,500 or more, a price out of reach for many already living paycheck to paycheck. Not being able to pay to retrieve the car means the car could be sold at a lien sale and credit is impacted. In Southern California where a car is more of a necessity than a luxury, a towed car means not being able to get to work, kids not getting driven to school, and critical doctor’s appointments are missed.
The NLG -LA is asking that the LASD follow the lead of other nearby localities by allowing unlicensed drivers to call a licensed driver to retrieve the car, refraining from impounding vehicles when the drivers has an expired California license, an out of state or foreign license; and considering economic hardship as a basis for a waiving release fees. To date, the NLG has tried to challenge at least three impounds and have the fees reversed but have been denied.