California Forum

When cops are immune from law enforcement

Jessica Price
Jessica Price

Last year, I was the victim of a hit and run. On a sunny day in May, I walked out of a coffee shop to find a group of people crowded around the damaged side of my car. They told me the man who’d crashed into my Acura had sped away and flipped off a witness who tried to stop him. Another witness had scrawled his license plate number on a napkin.

When I reported the accident to the Los Angeles Police Department I got an awful surprise. The man’s car was protected by “license plate anonymity” for off-duty police officers. This means that if any accident is reported against a police officer, the DMV will not provide any information.

This program – first authorized in 1978 – has become so popular that the Legislature has expanded license plate anonymity to the personal cars of 23 groups of people, including city council members, park rangers, museum security officers, former officers, and the spouses and children of everyone on the list.

The Assembly created this program in the belief that criminals should not be able to walk into the DMV and then find out the home addresses of police or prosecutors. But now state and federal law make DMV records confidential, except in certain cases, such as motor vehicle matters involving safety, and to collect tolls and fees. So now the exemption is obsolete – but it remains on the books.

A few bold legislators have tried to change the rules. They tried to require the DMV to keep a current employment address for everyone on the confidentiality list, making it easier to process the collection of traffic, parking or toll road violations. One of these bills stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2010. Another, in 2013, never got a hearing. Bills perceived to be anti-law enforcement rarely get far in Sacramento.

All I was allowed to know was that the man was associated with the Long Beach Police Department. When I called the police department to connect my insurance agency with the person who hit my car, the department refused, citing police officer confidentiality. When I complained about the issue, the Long Beach commander assigned to talk to me told me that once I filed a complaint, any information about him became part of a personnel file, which is confidential.

14,535number of unpaid toll lane violations on one road because of license plate confidentiality

Further investigation revealed that this officer was not on duty when he hit my car. In fact, he stopped working for the Long Beach Police Department in 2007. Yet, Long Beach continues to request confidentiality for his personal license plate. The driver now works for the Los Angeles Police Department, and when my insurance company tried to serve him documents there, the LAPD refused to accept them. I’m a civil rights attorney, but here, as a victim of a hit and run, I encountered an impenetrable morass of police bureaucracy.

They call it a confidential personnel record, but courts have held that an officer’s name is not a “personnel” record. They also called it an investigation record, but state law says that the victims of incidents are entitled to the names and addresses of the people involved. On top of that, they cite this special program of license plate anonymity.

We hear news of officers throughout our country speeding, stealing during arrests, and wrongfully arresting people for failure to provide identification, often without repercussion. These reports are, sadly, no longer shocking. This LAPD officer committed a hit and run against me, but who knows how many red lights he has run, parking tickets he has earned, or cars he has hit, where he will never have to pay?

The Orange County Register found that in five years, one toll road had 14,535 unpaid toll lane violations because of license plate confidentiality. Even while the police automatically collect data on thousands of civilian license plates each day, just in Los Angeles, those same officers are entitled to privacy – and immunity – enjoyed by nobody else.

As for the damage to my car, the LAPD has recently agreed to give my insurance company the officer’s name, but not his address, but since my insurance company was never able to reach the responsible party, I got stuck with the bill, while the officer got off scot-free.

If any other person had hit my car, the police department and my insurance company would have worked together so I could recover. But because it was a police officer, he was shielded from the law.

Why are we OK with a rule that allows a class of people to exempt themselves from complying with traffic rules, even when it has nothing to do with benefiting society?

When law enforcement is immune from enforcement of the law, then the presumption of fairness that our system of criminal justice is hinged on loses all credibility. A license plate should not be a license to commit criminal behavior. Our police ought to be out front in saying so.

Jessica Price is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

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