Only one city in California conducts checkpoints solely to catch unlicensed drivers.
And now even Escondido, a city of 130,000 north of San Diego, has announced it will no longer conduct the controversial roadway operations, which critics called discriminatory against Hispanics.
But that’s unlikely to change how the police department’s traffic division operates. The North County Times reported on Friday that Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher ended those specific checkpoints earlier this year.
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union’s chapters in San Diego and Imperial counties sent a letter to the Escondido city attorney arguing the driver’s license-only checkpoints violate California law.
The city, however, will continue to check driver’s licenses in the course of searching out other offenses – altering the checkpoints’ title, not their impact.
"Rather than argue with them, we will ask for more than just driver's licenses," Maher told the newspaper.
Police across California conduct thousands of checkpoints every year to catch all manner of vehicular misconduct. The operations most typically examine motorists’ driver’s licenses, though intended to primarily target drunk drivers.
As a result, the law most cited at checkpoints in California is the state’s 30-day-impound statute. The California Highway Patrol explains:
“The Legislature intended to provide safer roads for California's motoring public by removing the vehicles driven by unlicensed, suspended, or revoked drivers for 30 days. A serious violation of the law calls for a serious response. The 30-day impound begins on the calendar day the car is towed and will be released at the conclusion of the 30th day during normal business hours.”
An investigation by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and California Watch, published in February, found checkpoint impounds last year generated $40 million in towing fees and police fines. The reporting also discovered that vehicles are predominantly taken from minority motorists – often-illegal immigrants.
When police seize unlicensed drivers cars, the bill to recover the vehicle normally totals around $2,000. Cities increasingly get a larger cut of those dollars through “franchise fees.”
City finance records show Escondido’s tow firms pay a total of $400,000 a year in such fees for the rights to move and store vehicles for the police department.
Last fiscal year, Escondido's sobriety checkpoints resulted in 11 impounds for every one DUI arrest.
The legality of the 30-day-impounds is also in question. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s 30-day-impound law is awaiting oral arguments before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later this year.