Ninth Circuit Holds That California’s 30 Day Automobile Impound Law is an Unconstitutional Seizure

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Back on June 21, the Ninth Circuit struck down as unconstitutional a California law that has caused untold numbers of people to lose their cars to the impound business.  In the case of Lamya Brewster vs. Charlie Beck, et al., the plaintiff loaned her vehicle to her brother-in-law, who was stopped by the police.   They quickly discovered he was driving without a license.   He was arrested and the car was impounded.

When Ms. Bewster tried to recover her car, the LAPD refused to release it, despite the fact that she had a license, insurance, and the car was registered to her.  LAPD said they were required to hold car for 30 days, per California Vehicle Code section 14602.6(a)(1), which was true, at the time.

So, she filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil action alleging that Los Angeles police officers violated plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights when they impounded her vehicle for 30 days pursuant to California Vehicle Code section 14602.6(a)(1), which authorizes impounding a vehicle when the driver has a suspended license.  The trial court dismissed the case and she appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the 30-day impound of plaintiff’s vehicle constituted a seizure that required compliance with the Fourth Amendment. The panel held that the exigency that justified the initial seizure vanished once the vehicle arrived in impound and plaintiff showed up with proof of ownership and a valid driver’s license. The panel concluded that appellees provided no justification for the continued impound of plaintiff’s vehicle.

Long story short, if you are stopped for driving without a license, the cops can’t keep your car for 30 days anymore.   They have to release it it to the registered owner, so long as they are licensed and insured.

What has happened in real life ,of course, is the impound fees are so high after 30 days that no one can pay them, or they exceed the value of the vehicle, so the people lose their cars all the time without even being charged with a crime.  I’ve seen this happen numerous times.

Thank you to Ms. Brewster and her attorneys for filing this lawsuit!

You can read the full decision here.