By Contributing Editor JW August

How many cars is the Los Angeles Police Department having towed away?   That’s the question behind attorney Donald Cook’s California Public Records Act request on behalf of his client, public interest attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker. The request is intended to find out not only how many cars are towed, but how much money the City of Los Angeles and its tow yards are making off Vehicle Code section 14602.6. That law, says Cook, gives cops “summary punishment power”.  He calls the police“the tow yards’ Luca Brasi — grabbing people’s cars, then holding them for ransom.”

Here’s how it works: LAPD officers (or actually any California law enforcement agent) can tow your car anytime they want if it can’t be left safely on the street—for example, if it is blocking traffic or the driver was arrested for driving under the influence and there is no one available to drive the car away.    The vehicle gets towed and parked in a storage yard.  When the owner shows up to retrieve it, he or she has to pay the towing and storage charges which run from $25 to $50 a day.  While that takes a bite out of your wallet or purse, it’s nothing compared to what happens if the cop doesn’t like you. Or is having a bad day. Or as some allege, if you’re not legally in the country.

There is no due process with 14602.6.  The officer decides, and the car goes away for 30 days, with no wiggle room for the owner. Thirty days and usually charges in the range of $1400 are a very big bite indeed, especially for the poor.    If you don’t have the money, you can kiss your car goodbye.  And maybe your job, or your kids’ ride to school. So that’s why Cook and his client want to know more about how many cars LAPD seizes and how much money is being made off the backs of the poor.

And the legal system has just given them (and actually all of us) a big boost. On March 2, the California Supreme Court issued its headline-grabbing ruling that government officials’ private email messages may be subject to exposure if they deal with public business. But on the same day the California Court of Appeal issued an unrelated but equally vital ruling. In City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court, the court decided that people suing for information under the Public Records Act can use a court-ordered investigation to test the truth of a governmental response that it can’t produce the records because it doesn’t have or control them.

In other words, when officials claim that the requested records are simply not in their possession, or would take too long to assemble, or would be too costly to find, or have never been created, or have been destroyed, the records-seeker can use the rules of litigation-related discovery to see if those excuses are accurate—or even truthful at all. The officials can be deposed under oath or compelled to answer written inquiries, and relevant documents can be demanded to see if the requested records are indeed factually unavailable.  In reaching this conclusion the court noted several instances cited by Californians Aware and other “friends of the court” in which discovery had been used to ascertain the facts in earlier public records access cases.