Philly’s problematic “Live Stop” policy

When a Philadelphia motorist is found to be driving without a valid license or registration, the Police Department tows and impounds the car.  The driver must pay — sometimes upwards of $1,000 — to get the car back, in addition to any fines resulting from the violation.

State law does not actually require towing in most of these situations. But the City’s “Live Stop” policy calls for it anyway, mostly ignoring other options. According to Karen Hoffmann and Katelyn Mays, students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic who recently wrote a report on Live Stop, “Philadelphia seems to be one of the only cities in the nation with such an aggressive [towing and impoundment] policy.” (Some exceptions were created in response to a 2011 lawsuit filed by Stephen Sheller, who helped to create the Sheller Center for Social Justice.)

Among those harmed by the policy are undocumented immigrants, since – in a double whammy – state law makes them ineligible for drivers’ licenses (a problem discussed in another Sheller Center report). Thus, when an undocumented driver is stopped for even a minor violation, a license violation is also found and the car is towed. As Ms. Hoffmann notes, many of these drivers have valid registrations and insurance: “These are people who are trying to do the right thing, and the law is getting in their way.”

More generally, Live Stop imposes needless financial hardship on people who are struggling to get by.  As the report puts it, “Philadelphia should not have a policy that unnecessarily impoverishes city residents.” According to Ms. Hoffmann, moreover, the City seems unclear about how the policy was created or why it exists. “I learned how obscure city policies can be,” she says, “and how hard it can be to get to the root of where they came from.”

In researching the policy, the team worked closely with the New Sanctuary Movement, many of whose members have been affected by Live Stop. The experience, according to Ms. Hoffman, was “valuable, sometimes frustrating, definitely eye-opening.”  Read the full report here, in English or Spanish.

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