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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.
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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.
Vehicle owners still must pay city release fees, plus tow and storage charges to retrieve the cars. Those costs probably will total a few hundred dollars, rather than a few thousand.
Drivers with suspended or revoked licenses still can lose their cars for 30 days. The legislation applies only to those with no driving certification because they are not eligible.
Brown vetoed a separate measure, AB 1389, that would have set restrictions on how police run sobriety checkpoints.
Police officials did not line up to publicly endorse AB 353, nor did they attack it.
Daniel Fox, a traffic safety prosecutor with the California District Attorneys Association, said he worked with Cedillo’s office in amending the bill. Fox said they aimed to give unlicensed drivers a way to avoid impoundment without increasing legal liability for police officers.
“A lot of law enforcement got on board and said, ‘We can support 353,’ ” he said, “because it tries to strike a balance as best as possible with what is going on.”
Traffic safety advocates were most vocal in opposing the legislation.
By not seizing cars for 30 days, the state’s traffic fatalities will increase because unlicensed drivers are statistically more dangerous, said Gary McDonald, California director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There’s more of an opportunity for them to go out and be involved in an accident, a hit-and-run,” he said.
California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley reported early last year that police across the state impounded six cars for every one DUI arrest in 2009 at sobriety checkpoints. Those vehicle seizures brought cities and tow firms an estimated $40 million in revenue.
An analysis of the bill by the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee credits California Watch's reporting.
At least eight cities, including Los Angeles and Oakland, have amended their impound policies to reduce checkpoint seizures since 2010. El Monte, a city east of Los Angeles, followed suit this past year, giving unlicensed motorists time to find a licensed driver.
Capt. Ken Alva, head of patrol services for the El Monte Police Department, said AB 353 wouldn’t alter their checkpoints – except the manpower required.
During an operation, officers likely will have to keep watch over dozens of cars that previously would have been towed elsewhere quickly.
“That means that we’re going to be keeping someone with a badge and a gun over it, and that’s going to cause additional costs,” Alva said.
The law takes effect Jan. 1 and therefore won’t affect the large number of checkpoints scheduled around the holidays in November and December.
City records show numerous police departments negotiated towing contracts that give local governments a cut of storage fees or bring in more money when impound numbers increase.
The city of Escondido received as much as $400,000 a year from the tow firms with which it has contracts, according to finance records.
Lt. Tom Albergo, head of the Escondido Police Department’s traffic division, said he doesn’t know how AB 353 might affect the city’s tow contracts.
For years, the city’s force set up daytime checkpoints just to check driver’s licenses, which violates California law. Escondido police ended that practice in 2010.
The department intends to follow the new regulations, Albergo said. “We will still be doing the operations, because it’s really all about educating the public,” he said.