Escondido named in class action lawsuit

By: PAUL EAKINS - Staff Writer

ESCONDIDO ---- The city of Escondido is one of several California communities named in a class action lawsuit that challenges the legality of police officers seizing, towing and impounding vehicles of people caught driving without a California driver's license.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles names as defendants Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Orange County, and the cities of Escondido, Maywood and Los Angeles. Three plaintiffs are listed in the complaint and are represented by three Los Angeles civil rights law firms.

The constitutionality of police practices involving impounding vehicles is challenged by the lawsuit.

It states that not only is it unconstitutional for police to impound vehicles because drivers don't have valid California driver's licenses, but also that a vehicle shouldn't be impounded when it can be left safely at the location, moved to a nearby parking spot or someone can be contacted to pick up the car.

The complaint also challenges police procedures of automatically impounding vehicles for 30 days, of impounding vehicles driven by drivers with a valid driver's license from another state or foreign country or with a previously valid California driver's license, and of charging a fee greater than the administrative costs of the impoundment.

The lawsuit states the police procedures violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; Fifth Amendment guarantees of due process of law and prohibitions against the government taking property without just compensation; and the Eighth Amendment's prohibitions against excessive fines.

Whether the police policies also violate the 14th Amendment, which guarantees due process and equal protection under the law, is questioned in the lawsuit as well.

The lawsuit also demands restitution be made to the plaintiffs for the costs, fees and lost property associated with having their vehicles impounded.

"These 30 day impounds of vehicles that have posed no public safety threat and were not instruments of any criminal conduct offends basic constitutional principles, and we hope the court will swiftly put an end to them," attorney for the plaintiffs Barry Litt stated in a news release.

Escondido City Attorney Jeff Epp said Friday that he wasn't aware of the lawsuit, but that Escondido police follow the proper procedures.

"My understanding is that we comply with all of the applicable legal principles in how we conduct our checkpoints and handle vehicles at those checkpoints," Epp said.

In the case of the Escondido plaintiff, Efren Ruiz, the lawsuit states Escondido police officers stopped a vehicle owned by Ruiz that was being driven by his unlicensed friend Feb. 16. The police had the car towed and impounded for 30 days, but in that time, it was repossessed by a financing company, the lawsuit states.

Ruiz already had paid to have his car removed from the impound yard, and the additional cost charged to him by the financing company to recover his car has resulted in the loss of his vehicle, the lawsuit states.

The entire situation could have been avoided because Ruiz, who is a licensed driver, could have picked his car up later that day, the court document says.

"It was unnecessary and unlawful to tow and impound the vehicle," the complaint says. "The vehicle could easily have been moved to a lawful parking location."

Lt. David Mankin, spokesman for the Escondido Police Department, said Friday that if a licensed driver is available when an unlicensed driver is pulled over, that person usually is allowed to remove the car from the scene. Ruiz, however, wasn't in his car when it was pulled over by police, the court document says.

"If there's a licensed driver, then we would not impound their vehicle," Mankin said. "We would release it to the licensed driver."

Contact staff writer Paul Eakins at (760) 740-5420 or

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