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Police Commission Approves Controversial New Vehicle Impound Policy

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Some drivers may soon be able to avoid a mandatory 30-day vehicle impound if they can provide authorities with valid identification, car registration and proof of insurance. The city's Police Commission today approved the new policy with a 4-1 vote, reports City News Service, following months of high-profile discussion by local law enforcement leaders, civic leaders, and immigrant-rights activists.

Under the new policy, "drivers who were at fault in an accident, who had their licenses suspended, revoked or had been caught previously driving without a license would not qualify for a shortened impound."

The new policy was first proposed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief Charlie Beck last year "at the urging of immigrant-rights activists [and] civil rights groups" in order to tackle the ongoing issue of how to deal with undocumented immigrants who are also motorists in Los Angeles.

Earlier in 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department revised their policy to permit unlicensed drivers caught at checkpoints to have their vehicle driven from the scene by the registered owner, if that person was at the scene or could be contacted to come retrieve the vehicle. That policy change was supported by immigrants' rights groups.

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Recently, Beck stirred up controversy when he said he supported making undocumented immigrants eligible for driver's licenses. Beck posits that California's roads would be safer if undocumented immigrants went through the demanding testing procedure of legally obtaining driver's licenses, and he also believes the number of hit-and-run accidents would decrease, as drivers wouldn't be afraid of getting caught without a license. Additionally, Beck says it would help give a segment of the population valid identification.

Several lawyers and activists have contended that the previous mandatory 30-day vehicle impound, often implemented at regularly scheduled licensing and DUI checkpoints held by various law enforcement agencies, is discriminatory against undocumented immigrants, since they cannot legally obtain a driver's license.

However, the new impound policy is not without controversy either.

City Councilman Mitch Englander has been a vocal detractor of the policy. "Studies show the unlicensed driver will be back behind the wheel," Englander said recently. "I don't want blood on my hands, and I don't know how many more deaths and injuries have to occur.''

The Los Angeles City Council is not required to take on the Police Commission's new policy, but may "vote to take up the issue."

Chief Beck admits that even after today's Police Commission vote, the debate on the topic remains "far from over." He stresses, however, his belief that this policy will allow law enforcement personnel to focus on getting unlicensed drivers and repeat offenders off the road. "This is not a free ride," said Beck.

A state bill creating a program to open up driver's licensing to undocumented immigrants is forthcoming from Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, (D-Los Angeles). Villaraigosa, Beck, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca say they support such a program.