San Diego Shooter/Flickr
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.
When police encounter unlicensed drivers, state law stipulates that if the officer chooses to impound the car, it shall be held for 30 days. This applies to motorists with suspended and revoked licenses, as well as those who do not qualify for a driver’s license.
The California Highway Patrol and several cities and counties are defendants in the lawsuit. The government agencies argue the impounds are penalties for a criminal offense, and therefore car owners are not subject to Fourth Amendment protection.
A three-judge panel heard oral arguments in the case on Nov. 4.
Judging only by the discussion (audio available here), California’s checkpoint impounds are likely to continue legally.
The session began with Judge Mary Schroeder questioning the basis of the lawsuit. From there, the judges probed Donald Cook, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, about why it wasn’t legal and reasonable for police to take unlicensed drivers’ vehicles.
“What is supposed to happen?” Schroeder asked. “Somebody’s out there driving without any license and they get stopped and they have no license at all. Is the police officer supposed to send them home, send them off to drive without any license?”
Cook responded that officers certainly are permitted, in many instances, to take an unlicensed driver’s vehicle. At issue is whether they are permitted to hold those cars for 30 days, generating about $1,500 in fees and fines for the vehicle owners.
The checkpoint impounds last year netted an estimated $40 million for California cities and tow companies, California Watch found.
In the wake of Bell’s salary scandal, police officials there admitted to setting quotas for vehicle impounds, raising more than $750,000 a year.