LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Ninth Circuit on Thursday heard the appeal of a class action from a woman who says a Los Angeles city policy that allows it to impound cars for 30 days without a warrant is an unconstitutional taking.
Lamya Brewster of Fontana sued Los Angeles, its police department and Police Chief Charlie Beck in 2014, seeking an injunction and damages for licensed drivers she says were victimized by the city’s impound policy.
In a separate lawsuit, a conservative group trained its sights on the policy after the LAPD issued a special order in 2012 limiting when officers can seize unlicensed drivers’ cars. Under Special Order 7, officers could not take vehicles if the driver had auto insurance, a valid ID and no prior convictions for unlicensed driving, according to the LA Times.
Chief Beck intended to ease the burden on the hundreds of thousands of people who were in the city illegally and could not obtain licenses. A state court judge, however, struck down the special order after the group Judicial Watch challenged it. A California appeals court found for Chief Beck and reinstated the special order in late 2014.
Brewster’s attorney Donald Cook said that when Brewster filed her class action, some people viewed the policy as a way to target undocumented immigrants, but Cook added that “regardless of your view” officers should not take cars without a “real good reason.”
At a Thursday morning hearing in Pasadena, Cook urged the court to reverse U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal, who ruled that the policy is a not a seizure but a temporary forfeiture, so constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment do not apply.
But Cook argued that while an officer’s taking of a vehicle may be justified, that does not mean the city should be able to keep the vehicle for a month without judicial review.
Deputy City Attorney Gabriel Dermer asked the court to affirm, saying the 30-day hold under a section of the California Vehicle Code Section is not unconstitutional.
“Is it your position that the single justification for the seizure, which is the caretaking exception, can then last all the way through until they give it back?” Ninth Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown asked Dermer.
Dermer said no.
“My position is that once the car is seized, the Fourth Amendment no longer applies, and because of the Vehicle Code section with the due process protections, that's what then governs the continued retention of the property,” Dermer said.
In rebuttal, Cook told the panel that temporary forfeiture procedures usually include a judicial or quasi-judicial review.
“This doesn't have that,” Cook said.
In a brief to the court, Cook said that when Brewster showed up to the pound to claim her car and pay the fees she should be able to take her car. If not, the city should get a warrant.
According to her complaint, Brewster loaned her Chevrolet Impala to her brother-in-law so he could pick up some food — she did not know that his license had been suspended.
He was stopped as he pulled into a Chipotle parking lot. Officers impounded the vehicle without a warrant even after Brewster arrived in a taxi and told them that she was the registered, licensed owner of the car.
Brewster said that in some cases the LAPD refuses 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,” Brewster said in her complaint.
Ninth Circuit Judges Alex Kozinski and Judge Paul Watford joined McKeown on the panel, which took the case under submission.
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