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L.A. Police Commission Approves Car Impound Changes

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday endorsed a plan that will allow some unlicensed drivers to keep their cars instead of having them impounded after police stops — even though the county's top attorney has warned that the change may contradict state law.

The Police Department's civilian overseers approved a proposal by Chief Charlie Beck that would allow some motorists who are stopped and can't produce a license to avoid mandatory impounding of their vehicles, which can last for up to 30 days.

Instead, those who provide car registration and proof of insurance will be allowed to have another licensed driver pick up their vehicles.

Drivers who caused an accident, were previously stopped without a driver's license or who had their licenses suspended or revoked would not qualify for leniency.

"It's not a free ride," Beck said at a news conference after the commission approved the plan by on a 4-1 vote. "We will still cite everybody who we find unlicensed, we will still impound their vehicles in the vast majority of instances. What we're trying to do here is to acknowledge people who have taken the positive steps to be better drivers."

The only dissenting commissioner, Alan Skobin, said a recent study showed that unlicensed drivers are far more likely to be involved in hit-and-run accidents.

The plan could take effect in two to four weeks after police officers are trained in it, Beck said.

The City Council does not have to ratify the commission's decision. However, the council does have authority to vote on the matter if it wants to overrule the commission.

Police impounded about 30,000 cars last year, and most were for vehicle code violations that under state law call for a 30-day vehicle impound.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and immigrant-rights groups supported the chief's plan. They argued that the impound hurt hard-working illegal immigrants who cannot legally obtain drivers' licenses but need cars to work. They also argued that the towing and impound fees, which can top $1,000, unfairly harmed the poor.

The change is an attempt "to get safer drivers in Los Angeles and an attempt to recognize that this is an extreme hardship on many people," Beck said.

Last week, Beck said that illegal immigrants should be issued special state driver's licenses. He told the Los Angeles Times that a California ban has failed to reduce the number of illegal immigrants who are driving.

All drivers should be required to undergo the rigorous testing required for a license, which would then help police properly identify everyone they encounter, Beck said.

"We do so many things as a society to encourage people to emigrate here," the chief said Tuesday. "Why wouldn't we want to ensure that they have personal responsibility when they operate a motor vehicle?"

The plan was opposed by the police union and by critics who argued it would effectively reward criminals and make the roads less safe.

The state Legislative Council and Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley questioned the legality of the policy change.

In a Monday letter to the police chief, Cooley said it would be contrary to state law requiring the impounding of cars driven by unlicensed drivers and would leave the city open to lawsuits involving damage, injuries or deaths in accidents involving unlicensed motorists.

However, Deputy City Attorney Heath Aubrey argued before the Police Commission that the state laws are discretionary and the chief's plan was legal.

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