The issue of letting unlicensed drivers keep their cars at police checkpoints wasn't on the agenda, but the conservative talk-radio hosts (KFI AM 640) put it there by encouraging listeners to show up at the meeting and voice their opinions during the public comment phase of the night.
A sea of blue hair filled St. Nicholas Church, a 400-or-so capacity venue that was standing-room-only:
The people are angry over a proposed change to LAPD policy, urged on by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, that would stop mandatory 30-day impounds of cars belonging to unlicensed drivers who are stopped by police.
Critics say the impounds would be stopped even in a situation where an unlicensed driver is involved in an injury accident.
As it is the LAPD already implemented a policy that would let the undocumented, unlicensed keep their cars when they're caught in DUI checkpoints and a licensed friend or family member is near and ready to drive the vehicle off. That was before Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that will stop the 30-days impounds at DUI checkpoints only.
Many if not most of those caught without licenses at checkpoints are illegal immigrants, who can't get licenses in California as a result of a 1994 change in the law.
Their cars were often taken for good after 30-day impounds and exorbitant storage fees, taxes and fines (about $1,500) that are shared by the city and tow yards. If the owners did't claim them, the cars were auctioned off: The tow yards got first crack at storage fees and taxes owed, but anything more than that was taken by the city and state.
That process will remain the same if an illegal is caught by the LAPD during a traffic stop: But the mayor wants that to change.
For the most part the city makes about $200 per impound. A vast majority of impound auctions end up as losses for the towing companies if you consider the $1,500 in fees, taxes and fines owed. (Illegals don't often drive Ferraris, it seems).
Interestingly, L.A.'s Official Police Garages are officially in favor of provisional drivers licenses for all.
The L.A. police union, which is vehemently opposed to the LAPD's direction on this, states:
Of the roughly 40,000 fatal car crashes each year, 20 percent involve a driver without a valid driver's license, according to a study conducted for the American Automobile Association (AAA). That's about 8,000 drivers who should not have been on the road and according to the AAA, car impoundment is a strong deterrent.
Don Rosenberg angrily addressed the commissioners, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the crowd last night. He said his 24-year-old son Drew was killed by an unlicensed driver.
"You are telling people who do not know the rules of the road to go ahead and drive," he said. " ... You meet my son in the cemetery and you tell him this is fair."
Most of the people in the room stood and applauded and, after Rosenberg's time was up, they urged the commissioners to "let him speak, let him speak."
A woman waiting in line to speak said he could have her two minutes, but the commissioners threatened to adjourn if the crowd didn't settle down.
David Hernandez testified that his brother "lost a leg" after he was hit by an unlicesned driver while "riding."
John Wheldon said the policy change would "make it easier for illegal aliens who committed other crimes to escape to Mexico."
The call for action by John & Ken, long accused of being anti-Latino (and admittedly anti-illegal-immigrant), brought activists from outside the city, including sometime Minuteman affiliates Barbara Coe and Lupe Moreno, both famously from Orange County.
Coe called the proposed policy change "unconscionable" and said "the blood of many more law-abiding Americans is going to be on your hands" if the policy change happens.
Moreno said that "illegal aliens think that drivers licenses are a joke."
Many commenters, almost all of whom were opposed to the change, said they were members of the city's ruling class and urged the commission to pay attention to its constituents. "We're in the majority," declared a woman named Mary.
(If by "majority" they mean older white homeowners in the Valley, they're mistaken, demographically speaking).
Some called Villaraigosa "Mayor Villar." Others referred to "those people," meaning illegals.
One large man who said he was unemployed blamed the undocumented for his own plight: "They took my construction job!"
He also earned many fans in the room when he said:
I want to thank John & Ken for keeping us informed!
Indeed others in the audience blamed "the media" for not focusing on the issue, and they praised the radio hosts for letting them know about the meeting. (We ... never ... write ... about ... this ... stuff).
A few pro-immigrant-rights leaders took turns speaking too. They were roundly booed.
Natividad Carrera said that if audience members were so concerned with unlicensed drivers, then they should support "licenses for all, regardless of immigration status."
Carlos Montes of the Southern California Immigration Coalition got the most negative reaction when he said that "unlicensed drivers are actually safer because they have a lot more to lose" -- e.g. "deportation."
Before being cut off, he said "this is about money" -- a reference to the cash the city and tow yards get from impounds.
Ron Gochez of the coalition said:
Most of us would agree ... we would be much safer if everybody would have to take the test, knew the laws and got a drivers license.
No Ron, not everybody -- certainly not in this room.
He said the opposition "has a little bit to do with xenophobia and a little bit of hate in this room." He argued that DUI checkpoints "steal the cars of hardworking people."
He got some applause from the small, brown section for that one.
Cliff Smith, a white guy who said he was a community council leader from South L.A., got some laughs when he said he believes that some of the opposition to a policy change might be because "your daughter ran away with a Guatemalan."
He scanned the room and said:
I can see the city wanting to get the opinion of the Tea Party and the Minutemen.
Smith also called the current policy "stealing cars from working people" and noted, along with other supporters of a policy change, that checkpoints are often set up working-class, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.
(While that last point could be debated, we have noticed the same. The LAPD often broadcasts the locations of its checkpoints to the media, and rarely are they in Encino, Brentwood or Homby Hills).
We also have to wonder how the folks last night think their gardeners, babysitters and short-order cooks get to work. While "the-law-is-the-law" was the mantra of the Valley old guard, it's not so simple.
The undocumented are, in fact, pretty much allowed to work in agriculture, for example, even though there are wage laws. We eat the lettuce nonetheless. The law leaks.
We would agree with one line of argument, however: Cops shouldn't be allowed to decide the rules. That should always be up to the people. In this case, however, the folks at St. Nicholas Church have an exaggerated and dubious claim to majority status in a county where one of every two of us is Latino.
In any case, John & Ken proved one thing:
A politically driven policy change that's almost certainly being pushed on Beck by Villaraigosa won't happen quietly -- as planned.