Cops Can't Take Innocents' Cars for 30 Days, Court Rules
File photo by Chris Yarzab/Flickr

Cops Can't Take Innocents' Cars for 30 Days, Court Rules

Cops can no longer keep your car for a month without good reason.

A unanimous ruling this week by a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that the Los Angeles Police Department's policy of holding some impounded cars for 30 days is unjust. Car owner Lamya Brewster sued after the LAPD kept her vehicle for 30 days after her brother-in-law was stopped for allegedly driving it with a suspended license.

The federal court found that the monthlong possession amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property. Brewster tried to retrieve her car three days after the stop but was told it would have to be kept for a month under state law. She took the matter to court in Pasadena. A lower court ruled in favor of cops, saying 30-day impound was a "valid administrative penalty." The federal appeals court disagreed. "The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures," according to the ruling.

"A seizure is justified under the Fourth Amendment only to the extent that the government’s justification holds force," Judge Alex Kozinski wrote. Thereafter, "Government must cease the seizure or secure a new justification."

The city is keeping its options open, which means that this could, at least in theory, end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. "We will review the decision and all our options," Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office, said via email.

Thirty-day impounds cost motorists more than $1,300 in storage and fees, which, it could be argued, is unjust punishment for folks like Brewster, who did nothing wrong. Kozinski ruled that once she showed that the car was hers and that she had a legitimate driver's license, the city had no justification for keeping the vehicle.

ACLU of Southern California senior staff attorney Michael Kaufman said that motorists whose cars are similarly impounded should be able to get their cars back immediately.

"If the city wants to be reasonable, someone should be able to retrieve that car" from here on out, he said. He called the ruling "an important check against future abuses" by police.

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