By John Parker
Published Mar 17, 2011 9:24 PM
The Southern California Immigration Coalition stepped up its campaign in Los Angeles last year to stop the growing number of car impounds against non-driving-under-the-influence unlicensed drivers at police checkpoints. The coalition says this policy targeted undocumented immigrants, who, through no fault of their own, were unable to obtain licenses.
In addition, SCIC stressed that these impound policies disproportionately target and more severely penalize residents in Black and Latino/a neighborhoods, where the vehicles are needed to get to work. Moreover, the impounded cars’ owners are forced to wait 30 days before they can pay at least $1,000 to get their vehicles back.
The SCIC’s campaign strategy targeted city-affiliated neighborhood councils and conducted protests during live checkpoints. SCIC members aimed to warn motorists and build awareness of the impound policy’s unfair nature. They succeeded in gaining abundant media coverage of their protests at impounded car sites. Two Los Angeles neighborhood councils voted to stop impounding.
SCIC’s efforts paid off sooner than expected. On March 11, just one week after a very successful protest at a Los Angeles Police Department checkpoint, Police Chief Charlie Beck said the city had revised its towing policy. The March 13 Los Angeles Times said, “Police would be required to try to contact the registered owner of a vehicle, which is stopped at a checkpoint. If the owner is licensed and can arrive in a reasonable amount of time, the car would not be impounded. If the owner is unlicensed, but a licensed driver is in the car, that person may be permitted to take it.”
Ron Gochez, a SCIC steering committee member, said, “People in our communities can sleep a little easier now with less fear about losing their vehicles. Because of the work the coalition has been doing on the streets putting pressure on the mayor and LAPD, this is a concrete victory for our communities.”
According to a Los Angeles Times’ study of checkpoint information from the California Office of Traffic Safety, during a three-month period in 2009, nearly 4,000 vehicles, or 55 percent, were impounded due to unlicensed drivers. Only 14 percent were impounded for driving under the influence or other reasons.
In Coachella in Riverside County, drivers are given 30 minutes to find a legal driver to avoid an impound. Mayor Eduardo Garcia told the Los Angeles Times the city’s impound policy was changed because “we saw an escalation of vehicles being towed and the hardship that it was creating for families.” He added that those affected were “not individuals who were DUI, or who had suspended licenses” or were being sought by the law, but the policy mostly targeted migrant workers in his community.
This is a real revenue booster for the state, as tens of thousands of cars were seized from 2007 to 2009. In one year alone, the state of California made $40 million in impound fees.
Many residents see the severely punitive impound policies as yet another way to make working and poor people pay for the economic crisis. By refusing to go after the rich or the oil companies to balance city budgets, which are broken by government war spending and bailouts, revenue-increasing schemes using law enforcement as a cover — whether from increasing fines for parking tickets or impounds — are instituted.
John Parker is a member of the Southern California Immigration Coalition and the chair of the Central Area Neighborhood Council, which was one of two city-affiliated councils to pass resolutions to stop car impounds at police checkpoints.
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