CHP sidesteps feds to continue their 30-day tows
Four years after a federal appeals court ruled that 30-day vehicle impounds for unlicensed drivers are unconstitutional, some law enforcement agencies across California are still doing them.
The California Highway Patrol, one of the busiest towers in the state, continues 30-day impounds and denying early releases, despite the court ruling and the agency’s own policy expert warning against the practice, according to a CalMatters examination of public data, internal CHP emails and court documents.
CHP’s impound policy is now under attack by at least three lawsuits, claiming the state police agency is seizing and keeping people’s property in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects the public from unreasonable searches and seizures.
A 30-day impound can be a costly punishment for some drivers caught without a valid license. They are frequently poor Californians who’ve lost their licenses for offenses ranging from missing traffic court to lack of insurance to driving drunk.
“Thirty-day impounds are popular with a lot of people, given who the victims are,” said Los Angeles attorney Donald Cook, who is suing CHP for its towing practices. “I get that we want to discourage unlicensed drivers from driving vehicles, but this is not the way to do it.
“You give them a ticket, take their car off the street, you can criminally charge and convict them,” he said. “But you don’t summarily dispose of their property.”
For law enforcement, motorists and lawmakers, dissuading unlicensed drivers from getting behind the wheel is a high priority, with one federal study saying they account for 19% of fatal crashes nationwide. But according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, dealing with these drivers is also a balancing act — protecting motorists immediately from unsafe drivers while also protecting people from drawn-out car impoundments.
In California, it’s especially complicated.
Since 1995, state law has allowed police to impound cars from unlicensed drivers for 30 days — and the law has stayed on the books, despite the 2017 federal ruling.
This has resulted in a patchwork of enforcement practices, CalMatters has found. Whether an unlicensed driver’s vehicle is impounded usually hinges on where the person was stopped.
For instance, many stations in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told CalMatters they still use 30-day impounds, although a spokesperson said they don’t have an agency-wide policy.
The Los Angeles Police Department, the state’s biggest law enforcement agency, halted the practice in 2020, a spokesperson said. San Francisco and San Jose police no
longer use 30-day impounds for unlicensed drivers, their departments stated. Four years ago, the League of California Cities advised cities to change their 30-day hold policies to “avoid potential liability.”
But along the vast stretches of California highways — which CHP rules — citations for driving without a license still can end with a citation, no car for 30 days and well over $1,000 in towing fees. CHP does not charge its own towing fees but contracts with companies statewide.
Between January 2017, the year of the court decision, through July 2021 CHP officers ordered more than 50,000 30-day tows for unlicensed drivers, according to a CalMatters analysis of towing data. Those impounds make up about 7% of all CHP tows.
Angelica Untalan’s 2000 Grand Am was one of them.
Untalan, then 25, was living in one of the most sprawling cities in the country. Still, she never had a
driver’s license and had been stopped multiple times, but not towed, leaving her with fines and court summons, court records show.
In May 2019, a South Los Angeles CHP officer stopped Untalan for a cracked windshield and not wearing a seat belt, according to her federal lawsuit filed the same year in Los Angeles.
Untalan was searched, cited, and her car hauled off to California Motor Club’s tow yard for a 30-day stay, according to CHP data obtained through a public records act request. That day, Utalan’s Grand Am was one of six 30-day impounds ordered by South Los Angeles CHP officers and among 29 statewide, the data show.
Nearly two weeks later, officers agreed to release the car after Untalan’s attorney signed a form, saying Untalan would not be “given, rented, or provided” any vehicle until she got a license, according to the lawsuit and documents provided by Cook, her attorney. The car had accrued 11 days worth of
fees, which Utalan couldn’t afford, and her car was sold in a lien sale about a month later, the lawsuit states. She owed around $2,000.
Untalan declined an interview with CalMatters.
“It’s outrageous what they’re doing,” said Cook, who recently won a summary judgment on Untalan’s behalf. CHP is appealing.
“really violates basic, fundamental concepts of… due process that just are so at odds with the way things are done,” he said.
Through a spokesperson, CHP declined to comment on the lawsuit or the agency’s 30-day tow policy, citing “ongoing litigation.”
Since the 2017 federal ruling, however, the agency’s policy experts have sent mixed messages.
Six days after the court decision, Chris Lane, commander for the research and planning section, emailed several staff members saying, “… we are aware (of the decision) but no policy changes at this juncture.”
By 2020, the message from that office was changing.
Justin Sherwood, a vehicles procedures expert for the agency, advised officers against the impounds in internal emails. On July 23, 2020, Sherwood told a fellow CHP employee the court decision “essentially made it impossible to deny early releases absent a court order…”
In another internal email on Sept. 30, 2020, Sherwood wrote, “The impound is lawful…holding it is not. … I wouldn’t want to be the guy at the front counter that gets my office in hot water!”
Yet in court proceedings, CHP lawyers contend the law around 30-day tows isn’t clearly established and Untalan’s case doesn’t entirely fit within the appellate court’s ruling. The agency’s attorneys also argued for qualified immunity, which blocks public employees from being sued for enforcing California laws.
“It doesn’t surprise me that the CHP is still trying to defend their position, but I’d be nervous about it, given the facts of the… (appellate court ruling),” said Rory Little, a UC Hastings College of Law professor and constitutional expert.
When the 9th Circuit ruled against 30-day tows for unlicensed drivers, the move was heralded in some news reports as a clear smackdown of the state law.
The reality was more opaque. The court sidestepped answering if the law was constitutional. Instead, the three-judge panel determined that while police can tow vehicles away from unlicensed drivers in exigent circumstances, holding onto a person’s vehicle for 30 days is a seizure and must comply with the Fourth Amendment.
“The whole issue about whether it’s a fair penalty is still up in the air,” said Little.
“I get that we want to discourage unlicensed drivers from driving vehicles, but this is not the way to do it” — Los Angeles attorney Donald Cook