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Police Union Faces Off Against Immigration Advocates Over Car Impounds

Catherine Green |
January 22, 2012 | 12:44 p.m. PST

Deputy News Editor

SCIC's Ron Gochez, pictured here at Tuesday's meeting, stands up for undocumented immigrants and their access to driver licenses. (Jacob Chung)
SCIC's Ron Gochez, pictured here at Tuesday's meeting, stands up for undocumented immigrants and their access to driver licenses. (Jacob Chung)

The fight over Los Angeles’ 30-day car impound practice got personal last week, turning what began as a debate over procedure versus policy into a mudslinging match.

In the middle of its battle to revise the city’s car impounding policies, the National Lawyers Guild and Southern California Immigration Coalition (SCIC) sent a scandal-rife letter Wednesday to L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson Jr. The letter called for the immediate recusal of Councilman Mitch Englander from any vote on Police Chief Charlie Beck’s recent proposal, citing conflicts of interest, both financial and familial.

Englander responded to the allegations, telling LA Weekly, "These made up lies are wrong and they are simply trying to change the subject since they don't have any legal basis for their argument." But that denial hasn't made the car impounding issue go away.

Chief Beck said earlier this month he would stop enforcing 30-day seizures on cars of unlicensed passengers. Instead of towing the vehicles, police would allow first-time offenders to retrieve their cars. If the driver was not the registered owner, another licensed driver could pick it up within a “reasonable” amount of time.

Cities like San Jose, San Francisco and Baldwin Park have already made similar changes to their vehicle codes. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has stepped out in support of making the change in L.A., but in early December of last year, Councilman Bernard Parks introduced a motion to block Beck’s move.

At its Jan. 13 meeting, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee requested impact reports from the Police Commission, Chief Legislative Analyst and the City Attorney's office to better understand the effect of the holds before making a decision.

Joining Councilman Parks is the Los Angeles Police Protective League as well as the city’s Official Police Garages Association (OPG). They, along with Councilman Englander who chairs the Public Safety Committee, have butted heads with those pushing for the change over whether this is an issue of policy or procedure.

“If it’s police procedure,” said Matt Myerhoff, Englander’s communications director, “that would be up to the authority or discretion of the police commission. But if it’s policy, as we believe it is because it’s a wide-reaching issue of safety, that would be up to the city council.”

But according to those backing the revision, Englander has a compromised interest in preserving the 30-day holds. "Councilman Englander’s uncle, Michael Englander, and his public relations firm–Englander, Knabe & Allen–represent the PPL," Flynn wrote in Wednesday's letter, "which has lobbied City Councilmembers to block Chief Beck’s procedural change.

Additionally, Flynn alleged OPG has given Councilman Englander more than $13,500 in campaign funds.

But “inappropriately intertwined business relations extend beyond the Englander family,” Flynn wrote, “and involve other representatives of the OPG and towing industry interests.”

The Guild’s finger-pointing continued with the revelation that a consultant for the League, Eric Rose, is also executive director for OPG, which takes in much of its revenue from impounding fines and fees. (CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the National Lawyers Guild inaccurately described Councilman Englanger's relationship with PR firm Englander, Knabe & Allen. In a statement responding to the Guild's letter, Rose wrote: "Councilman Englander has no financial interest in Englander Knabe & Allen nor has he ever had a financial interest in any of the companies associated with Harvey Englander." Rose also pointed out he is a consultant, not a lobbyist for the Police Protecitive League. See below for Rose's entire statement.)

According to numbers provided by Rose, OPG towing companies retain $1,200 from unlicensed drivers to release their cars after the 30-day impounding period. The city takes an additional $200 in a vehicle release fee and 10 percent parking tax on the daily cost of storage.

Rose was quick to point out that the LAPD does not hold all vehicles for 30 days. He also provided a report showing a downward trend in 30-day impounds, from 38,600 in 2002 to a little under 29,000 last year. But a conservative estimate shows that activity would have still flooded OPG’s towing companies with more than $33 million in 2011.

According to the League, “The cost and inconvenience of recovering an impounded vehicle discourages people without licenses from driving. That is precisely why the state legislature enacted the 30-day hold.”

But the National Lawyers Guild has said it is unfair and unrealistic to expect urban dwellers in California’s largest city to live without cars.

“Look, driving in L.A. is not a luxury,” said attorney Gilbert Saucedo. “It’s a necessity.” Further, the Guild and SCIC have both suggested the holds target a specific demographic in L.A.—the immigrant community.

“Unfortunately,” Saucedo said when reached by phone, “the way this code is implemented by the police department—by checkpoints in communities with higher populations of undocumented immigrants, by officers looking for older cars with certain types of drivers—that’s the effect.”

The League has been vigilant in its efforts to avoid being labeled xenophobic or racist. Their reported numbers, at least those available to the public, do not include the race or immigration status of unlicensed drivers.

“This has nothing to do with illegal immigration or the ethnicity of drivers,” Myerhoff said. “If you’re unlicensed, it means you’re not trained, not approved to be driving a car. The ability of someone to make a living does not take away from their obligation to follow the law.”

The Guild and SCIC said they aren’t challenging that expectation. Rather, they want to reverse a change in the vehicle code 18 years ago that made it impossible for L.A.’s undocumented immigrants to even take the license exam.

Before 1994, drivers didn’t need a Social Security number to take the test. As a result of Vehicle Code 14602.6, proponents of the revision say, a large sector of people in L.A. have been actively blocked from following city protocol to become licensed drivers.

At a Police Commission meeting last week, Ron Gochez of SCIC likened the prohibition to anti-Semitic practices in Hitler’s Germany and the institution of slavery in the U.S.

“Everything they did was completely legal. It was immoral and wrong, but it was legal,” Gochez told Neon Tommy. “Based on that context, what we’re saying today, here—this is also legal, but it’s immoral.”

Gochez isn't suggesting unlicensed drivers get off scot-free. “We’re just saying the punishment should fit the crime,” he said. “Taking someone’s car for 30 days for simply not having a license is completely unjust.” According to Gochez, more than 80 percent of drivers punished with 30-day holds are undocumented immigrants.

“The irony is,” he continued, “If someone who is a licensed driver, like myself—if I go out tonight and get drunk and get a DUI, I can pick up my car tomorrow morning. Pay the fine, pick up my car and go back to work. But someone who’s simply undocumented, that wasn’t drunk, with no criminal record, they automatically lose their car for 30 days.”

Saucedo said punishments like 30-day impounds and restrictions on test eligibility are not effective ways to deal with undocumented immigrants. He said revising these policies, or procedures, would enable local officials to better regulate who gets behind the wheel. “If Mr. Englander’s interest is to promote public safety,” Saucedo said, “he should be focused on allowing undocumented immigrants to take the test and get licenses.”

Neither he nor Gochez could be reached for comment on the most recent allegations regarding Englander's conflict of interest. But they and other advocates of the revision seem more focused on future goals. “We invite them to join us in the movement so everybody in the state is allowed to go and take the test,” Gochez said at Tuesday's meeting. “Now if they don’t support that, then we really question the real motive behind their actions.”

The City Council is expected to take up the issue again once impact reports are turned in by the enlisted agencies. When asked for a time frame on drafting that report, a representative for the Police Commission said only that it “won’t happen overnight.”

“We’re going to welcome the police chief or anyone else to come down to the other part of town—South L.A. or East L.A., where a lot of us live and where most of the people who are deeply affected by this live,” Gochez said. “It would only be fair that they have their time to share their opinion with the police commission.”

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Eric Rose's Response to the National Lawyers Guild & Southern California Immigration Coalition

Below is a statement from Eric W. Rose regarding the outrageous comments made by Colleen Flynn on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild and the Southern California Immigration Coalition.

The letter by Ms. Flynn is full of factual inaccuracies, starting with her description of the familial relationship between Councilman Mitch Englander and Harvey Englander. Ms. Flynn apparently is unaware that Harvey Englander is not his deceased brother. Councilman Englander has no financial interest in Englander Knabe & Allen nor has he ever had a financial interest in any of the companies associated with Harvey Englander. As previously published in the media, Harvey Englander does not advocate any client issues with any family members holding elective office.

Lacking any substance arguments, the National Lawyers Guild and the Southern California Immigration Coalition and turned to character assassination. Their letter/press release is devoid of any reasons why the LAPD should ignore California law and reward and encourage unlicensed driving.

The objections from the LAPPL to the proposal from the Mayor regarding changes to the 30-day hold policy are because unlicensed drivers are unsafe drivers. The California Department of Motor Vehicles led a pair of studies in the 1990s that found unlicensed drivers are nearly five times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than licensed drivers. Impounding vehicles, the DMV concluded, was an effective way to keep unlicensed drivers off the road. Moreover, two nationwide studies by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that 13% to 14% of drivers involved in fatal crashes did not have a valid license at the time.

The LAPPL is on record about the role of their public affairs/media relations consultant who is not their lobbyist. “As a public relations professional, Eric W. Rose represents many clients, including the League. He does not dictate our decisions but instead effectively spreads our message publicly after the Board takes a position. The League opposes the Mayor's directive to have the LAPD change the 30-hold for unlicensed drivers because it puts politics above public safety. Our concern is for the safety of residents on the streets of Los Angeles.”

Returning cars back to unlicensed drivers, who already have shown their willingness to disregard the law by driving when they are lawfully forbidden to do so, is simply bad public policy. The attempt to shift the focus to others who may be opposed to this flawed and dangerous proposal, instead of convincingly arguing why cars should be returned to unlicensed drivers after they are caught driving, only serves to highlight the lack of valid substance behind the proposal.

To be clear, The Official Police Garage Association of Los Angeles (OPG) supports changes in state law to reduce the number of unlicensed drivers by allowing for provisional licensing for those who cannot legally obtain a California driver’s license. With the authority of the 9th Circuit Court on the side of continuing 30-day impoundments for unlicensed driving, the OPGs believe that it makes little sense for LAPD to follow recommendations the Southern California Immigration Coalition and the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild are suggesting.

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