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California: Court Overturns LAPD Vehicle Impound Policy
California Superior Court judge finds Los Angeles Police Department car towing policy violates state law.

Towed carA judge in Los Angeles, California on Monday found the city's automobile seizure policy overly lenient and contrary to state law. Superior Court Judge Terry Green sided with groups that challenged the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for inventing a confiscation procedure that differed from procedures laid down by California state lawmakers. At issue is what to do when police pull over an illegal alien, someone who is by definition an unlicensed driver in the state. Judicial Watch, a conservative group, filed suit to force cops to seize and keep cars belonging to illegals for thirty days.

Los Angeles did a brisk business in car impounding until a 2005 decision of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals (view ruling) changed the legal landscape. The court found that just because a statute allows a car seizure, it does not automatically make confiscation reasonable for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit held that there was no reason for police to seize a legally parked car from an unlicensed driver when another licensed driver was present. On April 22, 2012, the LAPD chief issued Special Order 7 to comply with the court ruling, arguing that the guidelines tell officers how exercise their discretionary authority in implementing the state impound law.

"In evaluating the reasonableness of warrantless vehicle impounds, courts have focused on whether the impoundment was in accordance with the community caretaking doctrine," Special Order 7 states. "Consequently, this order clarifies the application of the community caretaking doctrine and establishes the department's impound procedures."

The rule recommended police officers confiscate a car if it is impeding traffic, causing a safety hazard, is in an area where it likely would be vandalized or if there is nobody available to lawfully move it out of the way. Otherwise, the vehicle owner could escape impound if he is able to find a licensed driver who could drive it away from the scene immediately. Cars in safe locations, such as driveways, would not be towed away.

Proponents of car confiscation contend that the LAPD guidelines are an end-run around a law clearly ordering thirty-day impoundment of vehicles from drivers with expired or non-existent licenses. Confiscation is big business for the city. Towing and storage can run $1100 per vehicle, and with hundreds of thousands seized every year, the revenue generated reaches into the tens of millions.

Judge Green stayed his ruling pending an appeal by the city.