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Class Attacks Los Angeles Car Impounds

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles police unconstitutionally seize and impound automobiles, a class action claims in Federal Court.

Lamya Brewster, of Fontana, sued the city, its police department and Police Chief Charlie Beck on Monday, seeking an injunction and damages for Fourth Amendment violations.

"It's like police rampaging through your home without a warrant," Brewster's attorney Donald W. Cook told Courthouse News. "They can't do it unless they have a real good reason.

"She's willing to pay the impound fees and go and show up and get the car, but they're not giving it to her. That, the police cannot do."

Cook cited an Oct. 29 ruling in San Francisco Federal Court, in which a judge issued a partial victory to a man whose Chevy Silverado was impounded by the City of Santa Rosa without a warrant.

U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson ruled that Cook's client in that case, Simeon Avendano Ruiz, failed to show that the policy violates "clearly established law," but found that the 30-day impoundment of his car is unconstitutional.

Ruiz had been issued a driver's license in Mexico but is unlicensed in the United States, Cook said.

"Most victims of this policy tend to be illegal," Cook said. "People see it as a way of going after illegal aliens. Regardless of your view on that, the problem is, you cannot take property absent a real good reason, without judicial review."

Brewster claims that licensed drivers have become victims of the same 30-day impound policy.

Officers seized Brewster's Chevrolet Impala on Oct. 28. At that time, Brewster says, she was at Kaiser Permanente Hospital on Sunset Boulevard to get an evaluation for her 6-year-old daughter, who had a brain tumor.

She loaned her Impala to her brother-in-law so he and other family members could pick up some food, she says, not knowing that her brother-in-law's license had been suspended.

He was stopped as he pulled into a Chipotle parking lot.

Officers impounded the vehicle even after Brewster arrived in a taxi, and told them that she was the registered, licensed owner of the car.

"The Oct. 28, 2014 seizure of the Impala was without a warrant," the complaint states.

The LAPD have refused to return the car and never provided any justification for the seizure, Brewster says.

She claims that in some cases the LAPD refuse to return vehicles to licensed and registered drivers within 30 days, even if the driver offers to pay storage and administrative charges. Those charges may run from $1,500 to $1,800, according to the lawsuit.

If car owners cannot pay the charges, their vehicles are placed in a lien sale.

"If the amount recovered by the lien sale is insufficient to pay outstanding storage charges and administrative fees, the vehicle's (former) registered owner remains liable to the tow yard for the difference," the complaint states.

Vehicle impoundment in Los Angeles has become a political issue.

The LAPD last year eased its 30-day impoundment policy with a special order that allowed officers to use discretion if a licensed driver was available to drive an insured vehicle.

Under the directive, if a car is towed away and impounded, unlicensed drivers could claim it the next day.

A Superior Court judge last year struck down the order after conservative group Judicial Watch challenged it.

Cook told Courthouse News that Brewster had to make the 50-mile drive from Fontana to Los Angeles after her daughter had seizures on Saturday. She had surgery or Sunday and is recovering after a successful surgery, the attorney said.

The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Los Angeles police declined to comment.

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