Federal Court Upholds California Impound Statute
By Jim Curry & Erin Fox
The Ninth Circuit Federal Court has written a new chapter in the nationwide debate over whether state impound laws authorizing or requiring impound of cars driven by unlicensed drivers. Under California Vehicle Code Section 14602.6, law enforcement officials can impound and hold vehicles for 30 days when driven by unlicensed drivers. Section 14607.4 states this penalty is "warranted to protect Californians from the harm caused by unlicensed drivers." Some governmental entities have struggled with this policy, which is occasionally unpopular, but could lead to massive liability if it is not followed. The statute is necessary because of the "community caretaking doctrine," and because the municipality and police could be sued if there is no impound, and the car subsequently is driven and causes damage, or is damaged where it is left after the traffic stop. Civil rights groups, on the other hand, criticize these policies because of the impact on undocumented immigrants. Some California municipalities have gone so far as to choose not to enforce these statutes, which could also lead to liability if the car and driver subsequently cause damage. On February 8, 2011, a federal court upheld the statutory scheme Salazar v. City of Maywood, et al. (Ninth Circuit Case No. Case: 08-56604) on appeal from Salazar v. Schwarzenegger (District Court Case No. CV07-01854).
The 21 Salazar plaintiffs sued several municipalities (including the City and County of Los Angeles) and various State officials, claiming that plaintiffs' constitutional due process rights were violated when their vehicles were impounded, and that the statutory scheme unfairly impacts undocumented immigrants. The plaintiffs vehicle owners had loaned their vehicles to unlicensed drivers who were then pulled over. The Ninth Circuit upheld the District Court's decision in favor of defendants on the federal due process claims in an unpublished Memorandum:
"Section 14602.6 applies only in very limited circumstances. The statute authorizes impoundment of vehicles for up to thirty days when an individual is found to be driving with a suspended or revoked license or without ever having been issued a driver's license. Cal. Veh. Code § 14602.6(a)(1). This limited application accords with the California legislature's determination that such a temporary forfeiture is warranted to protect Californians from the harm caused by unlicensed drivers-a determination we have no basis to reject. Cal. Veh. Code § 14607.4."
It was also important that there was a notice and hearing procedure:
"The statute also provides for notice and an opportunity to be heard. Owners of impounded vehicles have "the opportunity for a storage hearing . . . in accordance with Section 22852" in which they may contest the impoundment or present mitigating circumstances necessitating an early return of the vehicle. Cal. Veh. Code § 14602.6(b)."
The Salazar plaintiffs relied heavily on Miranda in which the Ninth Circuit considered an Oregon statute allowing impoundment. Miranda v. Cornelius, 429 F.3d 858 (9th Cir. 2005). Because the Miranda vehicle was impounded from the owner's driveway after the owner was teaching his unlicensed wife how to drive, the Court found that the impoundment was an unreasonable seizure. There was no need for impoundment under the "community caretaking doctrine" because the vehicle was in the owner's driveway, not impeding traffic or creating a public safety hazard. The unique facts and circumstances of the Miranda case are clearly different than the Salazar impoundments, because all of the Salazar vehicles were stopped on public streets or highways and, in each case, no owner-authorized, licensed driver was immediately available to retrieve the vehicle. Even the Miranda Court held that "impoundment is proper to prevent the immediate and continued unlawful operation of the vehicle or to remove a vehicle left in a public location where it creates a hazard," and that an officer acting within the scope of his or her community care-taking function is not required to consider "the existence of alternative less intrusive means" when the vehicle must in fact be moved to avoid the creation of a hazard or the continued unlawful operation of the vehicle. Miranda at 865, n6.
Further, unlike the Oregon vehicle statutes at issue in Miranda, under California law, the imposition of a 30-day impoundment is an administrative punishment for the violation of a criminal statute --- it is a misdemeanor offense to drive without a license. The Salazar Court acknowledged that the administrative punishment was intended to deter continued illegal use of the vehicle. Under California Vehicle Code § 14607.4(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."
And certainly, the failure to impound vehicles could result in municipal liability. Recently, a man brought suit against Solano County for serious injuries suffered when his trailer was struck by a vehicle driven by someone with a suspended license after the Solano County Deputy Sheriff failed to impound the unlicensed driver's vehicle during a traffic stop weeks before the accident. Simpson v. County of Solano, 1998 WL 34353105 (Respondent Solano County's Brief) at 1, 4. Also, in Alameda County, a man won a $5,780 verdict against the City of Oakland because a police officers upon arresting the man, released his vehicle to his spouse rather than impounding the vehicle. The plaintiff claimed that his vehicle was never returned to him, and that the officers had disposed of his personal property in violation of his rights. Childress v. City of Oakland, 1998 WL 1746806.
In a case with more dire consequences, an unlicensed driver with a previous DUI conviction caused a collision with another vehicle in Montgomery, Alabama, injuring 5 passengers, including four minors, and killing a sixth passenger, also a minor. Norris v. City of Montgomery, 821 So. 2d 149 (2001). A police officer had stopped the unlicensed driver's vehicle earlier the same day but did not impound the car pursuant to a state statute mandating impoundment. Id. at 152. The injured passengers and the estate of the deceased passenger brought a statutory negligence suit against the City seeking damages for wrongful death, personal injuries and property damage. In bringing their claim, the plaintiffs relied on the Alabama Safe Streets Act (subsequently repealed), which contained impoundment provisions similar to California Vehicle Code section 14602.6. The Alabama Supreme Court rejected the City's discretionary-function immunity defense and reversed the trial court's grant of the City's motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiffs' statutory negligence claim. Id. at 155.
While the public debate about the impound law will no doubt continue, the federal court has verified that the impound policy in California Vehicle Code Section 14602.6 makes sense, and helps avoid substantial liability.
Jim Curry is a litigation partner at Sheppard Mullin, based in the firm's Los Angeles/Century City office. Erin Fox is a Los Angeles-based litigation attorney and non-profit consultant. The authors assisted defendants in the preparation of the briefing in the Salazar case.