Under pressure from immigrant rights groups, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced last Friday that he had modified a departmental policy relating to the seizure and impound of vehicles driven by unlicensed motorists. Pursuant to California Vehicle Code (CVC) 14602.6(a)(1), police officer’s staffing positions at sobriety checkpoints would typically seize and impound a vehicle for 30 days, if the officer had evidence that proved that the vehicle was being operated by an unlicensed driver. Additionally, pursuant to CVC 12500(a), the unlicensed driver could be charged with a misdemeanor count of operating a motor vehicle without a license. The new policy now requires the officer to attempt to make contact with the registered owner, and allow him or her “reasonable time” to retrieve their vehicle from the checkpoint, thus avoiding the costs and inconvenience associated with a 30 day impound. Additionally, officers can allow another licensed driver to take possession of the vehicle. During a press conference discussing the change, Chief Beck said that the former policy “stuck in my craw as one of the things we weren’t doing the right way.” He went further in his statement, saying that the new policy is necessary because “this is the right thing to do. There is a fairness issue here…and we’re trying to balance the needs of all segments of our community and keep the roads safe”, and it’s an attempt to mitigate "the current reality, which is that for a vast number of people, who are a valuable asset to our community and who have very limited resources, their ability to live and work in L.A. is severely limited by their immigration status."
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is responsible for the safety of motorists, and the issuance of driver’s licenses, in the state of California, and they take this responsibility very seriously, and for good reason: as the country’s most populous state with over 37,000,000 people, driving in California presents its own unique challenges, particularly in Southern California, where more than half the states populous lives and works. With heavily congested freeways and roadways, drivers of varying skill level, and vehicles of all sizes, to say nothing of the pedestrian and bicycle traffic which much also share the roadway, even the most experienced drivers find themselves challenged and frustrated after a long day of navigating the almost 21,000 miles of roads contained within Los Angeles County. For this reason, it’s very important that the people who use the roads know how to properly operate a motor vehicle safely and efficiently, and the only way to legally prove this is by studying the nearly 110 page handbook issued by the DMV, and successfully passing both the written and behind-the-wheel examinations. In addition, the laws regulating California’s roadways are vast and complex, and fill a book to over 1,300 pages. But, the exams and laws serve one vital purpose: to keep people safe on the road! And even then, over 3,000 people died on California’s highways in 2009! This is why it is vitally important, for the safety of everyone, that persons operating a motor vehicle have the proper training and knowledge to do so.
It’s relatively easy to dismiss driving without a driver’s license as a minor infraction but in fact, it’s a major issue for Californians; so much so that the state legislature inserted their own “findings” on the subject, in a section of the vehicle code. According to CVC 14607.4, the state legislature “finds and declares” the following:
(a) Driving a motor vehicle on the public streets and highways is a privilege, not a right.
(b) Of all drivers involved in fatal accidents, more than 20 percent are not licensed to drive. A driver with a suspended license is four times as likely to be involved in a fatal accident as a properly licensed driver.
(c) At any given time, it is estimated by the Department of Motor Vehicles that of some 20 million driver's licenses issued to Californians, 720,000 are suspended or revoked. Furthermore, 1,000,000 persons are estimated to be driving without ever having been licensed at all.
(d) Over 4,000 persons are killed in traffic accidents in California annually, and another 330,000 persons suffer injuries.
(e) Californians who comply with the law are frequently victims of traffic accidents caused by unlicensed drivers. These innocent victims suffer considerable pain and property loss at the hands of people who flaunt the law. The Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that 75 percent of all drivers whose driving privilege has been withdrawn continue to drive regardless of the law.
(f) It is necessary and appropriate to take additional steps to prevent unlicensed drivers from driving, including the civil forfeiture of vehicles used by unlicensed drivers. The state has a critical interest in enforcing its traffic laws and in keeping unlicensed drivers from illegally driving. Seizing the vehicles used by unlicensed drivers serves a significant governmental and public interest, namely the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of Californians from the harm of unlicensed drivers, who are involved in a disproportionate number of traffic incidents, and the avoidance of the associated destruction and damage to lives and property.
This is why it is necessary that there be expensive consequences for failing to follow the law and why it should be inconvenient for those persons to lose their vehicle for 30 days.
A California driver’s license is not just proof that a person has been granted the privilege of operating a motor vehicle; it is also the main proof of one’s identification. The state of California requires that persons applying for a state issued identification card, or driver’s license, prove that they are legally allowed to reside in the state. For this reason, it is no surprise that illegal aliens lack this form of identification, and that immigrant rights groups wish make changes to these laws. In fact, in 2005, state Senator Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) managed to get a bill passed through the state legislature that would have allowed illegal aliens the privilege of obtaining a state issued driver’s license. Fortunately, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, saying that “this bill does not adequately address the security concerns” that he and the Department of Homeland Security shared. Governor Schwarzenegger was not often right, but with regards to this issue, he hit the nail on the head, as it is extremely difficult to verify the background of persons illegally immigrating to California, from Mexico. Additionally, there’s a strong argument to be made about how effective this program would have been, as most illegal aliens are fearful of deportation and are not likely to show up the at the local DMV office and announce their whereabouts on an official, state-mandated document. Last but not least, the information provided by illegal aliens is often false, as most have no choice but to live and work using other people’s social security numbers and identification. With that said, what’s the point of providing a form of identification to a person when the information provided is incorrect?
Chief Beck made it a point to discuss the “fairness” issue, and unfortunately, he tilted the discussion in the wrong direction. For law-abiding citizens, obtaining a driver’s license requires a commitment of time and money, including potentially costly auto insurance, which rates are partially attributed to the accidents caused by persons without driver’s licenses, and which is also mandated by law. So one must ask them self, what is “fair”: For a person to be allowed to continue to drive without a driver’s license without fear of any consequence, or for a person to make the time and financial commitment to operate a motor vehicle legally? Chief Beck also stressed that his goal was to “balance the needs of all segments of our community and keep the roads safe”. If this is true, then the question is, exactly HOW is Chief Beck planning to keep the streets safe? If the state legislature has made it a point to discuss the dangerousness unlicensed drivers pose to the general public, in the vehicle code, then exactly HOW will removing the consequences of those actions make the streets safe?
Persons who drive without a proper driver’s license do pose a huge public safety threat, and ultimately cost an already overburdened taxpayer millions each year. Chief Beck is misguided in his quest to satisfy the wishes of immigrant rights groups by easing the consequences associated with unlicensed drivers, and in doing so, is completely ignoring his first priority as Chief of Police: keeping the public safe from lawbreakers.