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Traffic officials following the few checkpoint rules that exist, auditor finds

California traffic safety officials have followed the few rules that exist for overseeing sobriety checkpoints set up by hundreds of police departments, the state auditor reported yesterday.

No federal law or state statute governs what happens at the roadway operations, according to the auditor's report. And the California Office of Traffic Safety is not required to closely monitor what happens at checkpoints it funds, which now number more than 2,000 a year.

Chris Murphy, the traffic safety office’s director, said the audit validates that the state funds lawful, lifesaving checkpoints.

“It speaks volumes to the work that my staff and law enforcement is doing,” Murphy said. “The checkpoint program has been running very efficiently and effectively.”


Fatalities on California’s roadways dropped nearly 12 percent from 2009 to 2010, which Murphy partially attributes to checkpoints.

The traffic safety office spent $16.8 million for police overtime at more than 2,500 operations during the 2010 fiscal year. Auditors noted that those sobriety checkpoints resulted in almost 28,000 citations to unlicensed drivers, compared with roughly 7,000 drunken driving arrests.

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Brown signs bill to reduce checkpoint impounds

The economics of California’s sobriety checkpoints will change next year, as Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation intended to reduce the number of cars police impound at roadway operations.

More than 100 city and county law enforcement agencies in the state run checkpoints. The operations are designed to target intoxicated motorists.

But more often, they catch unlicensed drivers, nearly all illegal immigrants, and officers impound their cars for 30 days. This practice generates up to $2,000 in fines and fees per car, totaling tens of millions of dollars a year for tow companies and local governments statewide each year.

The operations are unlikely to be as profitable going forward.


On Sunday, Brown authorized AB 353, which prohibits police at checkpoints from seizing a car solely because the driver is unlicensed.

The new law – sponsored by Assemblymen Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, and Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa – instead gives unlicensed motorists time to find a legal driver and avoid impound.

To get the car released, the unlicensed driver also must get the registered owner’s approval.

If the car remains at the checkpoint when the operation ends, police can have it towed and held for a short time, the bill states.

Officers maintain the authority to issue written citations for unlicensed driving.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report, DUI Checkpoints


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After city scandals, lawmakers crack down on car impounds

Bills written to shield illegal immigrants in California from losing their cars to impound have been stalled, vetoed or voted down for years.

In the past two weeks, however, two such pieces of legislation reached the governor’s desk with minimal political scuffling.

Sobriety checkpoints are intended to target drunken drivers, but in California, the roadway operations catch sober, unlicensed motorists far more often. A majority of these drivers are illegal immigrants.

Data from the state Office of Traffic Safety shows that at roadway operations during the holidays, police impounded six cars for every one DUI arrest made in 2010. The numbers in South Gate, southeast of Los Angeles, were 36 to 1.

Investigations by reporters and state authorities in the past two years have found officials in Maywood and Bell improperly directing police to seize vehicles for the cash they bring.

Local corruption was among the most significant reasons why anti-impound bills fared better this legislative session, said Ignacio Hernandez, a lobbyist and Sacramento attorney.


“These smaller cities weren’t immune from making some very serious, very bad decisions and some very self-motivated decisions in how they administer their cities,” said Hernandez, who worked to support the legislation. “And, certainly, checkpoints became part of it.”

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Brown may get last word on car impound controversy

As California’s attorney general, Jerry Brown was the first to crack down on questionable car impounds at checkpoints.

Soon, it appears, the governor also will get the last word on the legality of police seizing vehicles from sober but unlicensed motorists at roadway operations intended to catch drunken drivers.

The practice has become rampant throughout California, generating tens of millions of dollars in fines and fees for cities and tow companies. Illegal immigrants, unable to obtain a license, make up an overwhelming majority of the motorists who lose cars at checkpoints.

Drivers who don’t have a license or have had their driving privileges suspended or revoked can have their cars impounded for 30 days. The fees and fines that car owners must pay to retrieve their vehicles often reach more than $1,500.

AB 353, intended to prevent many of these impounds, made it to the floor of the state Senate this week. If passed, the legislation goes to Brown to sign or veto.

The governor has not taken a public position on the bill, written by Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. Elizabeth Ashford, spokeswoman for Brown, said the governor doesn't comment on legislation before he takes action on it.

Brown repeatedly has overseen investigations related to checkpoint impounds in recent years.

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Traffic safety enters checkpoint impound debate

Debate over impounds at California’s sobriety checkpoints has focused on immigration, civil rights and government corruption for much of the past year.

Few of the arguments have dealt with traffic safety.

That is likely to change today, when the state Senate Public Safety Committee considers two pieces of legislation (AB 1389 and AB 353) intended to curb vehicle seizures at the roadway operations.

In recent years, police at checkpoints have seized roughly six times as many cars – many from sober, unlicensed drivers – as they have made drunken driving arrests. The overwhelming majority of unlicensed drivers in California are illegal immigrants who cannot obtain a license.


Don Rosenberg, whose son died in November in a vehicle collision with an unlicensed driver, plans to testify at the committee hearing. He hopes to push lawmakers to consider traffic fatality numbers over other concerns.

“If you’re driving without a license, the car shouldn’t be impounded,” Rosenberg said. “It should be confiscated.”

Rosenberg cites a 2000 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety as evidence that motorists without licenses pose a significant risk, enough to justify vehicle seizure.

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Lawmakers move toward curbing checkpoint impounds

Over the past year, a half dozen California cities that impounded hundreds of cars driven by unlicensed drivers stopped at sobriety checkpoints have moved to end the lucrative practice.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles and Oakland police departments, began providing these motorists, nearly all of them illegal immigrants, time to find a licensed driver to legally remove their vehicle from the checkpoint stop.

Now, state lawmakers are deciding whether to make such changes mandatory for all California police departments.

The state Assembly on Friday easily passed AB 1389, which contains a host of provisions to curb checkpoint impounds. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, is headed to the state Senate’s rules committee to be taken up next week. The measure passed the Assembly with a 54-22 vote.

An analysis of the legislation written by the Assembly Transportation Committee bases most of its arguments on reporting by California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, which examined vehicle seizures at sobriety checkpoints a year ago.

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Like Bell and Maywood, Montebello reaps funds from car seizures

Montebello’s financial story, though just starting to publicly unfold, seems to be following a narrative similar to that of two other cities east of Los Angeles: Bell and Maywood.

It’s short on cash and has pulled restricted redevelopment dollars into the general fund. Further, officials recently discovered two "off the books" bank accounts through which more than $1 million in taxpayer money had moved through, the Los Angeles Times has reported.

And, like its two neighbors, Montebello police have aggressively impounded cars, creating a revenue source.

John Chiang, the California state controller, last week ordered a full audit [PDF] of Montebello’s finances. The city is months late in filing its annual report to the state, one of the reasons Chiang believes earlier financial statements are “false, incomplete or incorrect,” the controller wrote in an April 21 letter.

In the coming months, state auditors will explore every dollar that has moved in and out of Montebello’s accounts.

Vehicle seizures will certainly be part of the mix.

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Cities turning against 30-day impounds

The San Jose Police Department last week joined a small, but growing, list of law enforcement agencies moving to change their policies to avoid impounding unlicensed drivers’ cars for a month.

California law allows police to seize cars driven by motorists with a suspended or revoked license – or with no license at all. And if officers impound those cars, the laws says the vehicles shall be held for 30 days – raking up thousands of dollars in fines and fees per car, paid to cities and tow companies.

A majority of the drivers losing their cars are illegal immigrants who cannot legally obtain a driver’s license.

The result has been tens of thousands of vehicles impounded across California each year. This phenomenon has often turned patrol officers into tow dispatchers and sobriety checkpoints into mass impoundments.

Immigrant rights groups have vigorously lobbied cities to soften impound policies.

These groups started scoring victories a year ago, when the San Francisco Police Department began granting unlicensed motorists a 20-minute reprieve to find someone to legally move their cars.

The city of Baldwin Park followed suit [PDF] in October with a different approach.

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Checkpoint impounds increase during holidays

Along with lights displays, sales on electronics and good cheer, in California the winter holidays bring a slew of sobriety checkpoints.

The California Office of Traffic Safety is wrapping up its “year of the checkpoint,” during which it funded a record 2,500 such operations. Starting in two weeks, several dozen of the state’s police agencies will set up roadway inspections night after night – advertised primarily as checks for drunken drivers.

More often, though, the checkpoints catch unlicensed drivers, who lose their cars to month-long impounds. A majority of those drivers are illegal immigrants, reporting by California Watch found.

The holiday checkpoint program, called Sobriety Checkpoint Mini-Grants, has $5.3 million to spend [XLS] this fiscal year, much of it paying police officer overtime at operations in December and January.

Critics of this activity contend the car seizures are unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment (protection against unlawful search and seizure) and the Fifth Amendment (which promises due process).

That legal question is now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering an appeal in the federal lawsuit Salazar v. Maywood.

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Amid budget crisis, state balks at limiting checkpoint impounds

For one night last week, the entire state budget became tangled in the complex legal and political issues surrounding sobriety checkpoints – and the financial strain they put on California's unlicensed drivers.

During final budget negotiations Thursday, state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, attempted to significantly limit law enforcement’s ability to impound the vehicles of unlicensed – but, in most cases, sober – drivers who are stopped at DUI checkpoints.

An investigation by California Watch early this year found the state’s local governments and tow companies generated an estimated $40 million from checkpoint impounds in 2009. Many of the unlicensed drivers who lose their cars at checkpoints are illegal immigrants.

The Cedillo measure was touted as an anti-corruption provision since police officers in Bell, near Los Angeles, admitted last month that the city used revenue from impounds to pay top officials massive salaries. Bell police referred to checkpoints as “tow-a-thons,” says former Sgt. James Corcoran, who investigated corruption issues in the city.

California law stipulates that if police choose to impound a car because the driver lacks a valid license, the car shall be held for 30 days. Between release and storage fees, these impounded cars can cost owners as much as $2,000 to retrieve. Motorists arrested on suspicion of drunk driving typically can pick up their cars the next day.

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