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At a sobriety checkpoint in December 2009, the Los Angeles Police Department impounded 64 cars from unlicensed drivers while making just four drunken driving arrests.
That disparity has been common for years at such operations all over California, which are intended to catch or deter intoxicated motorists. Instead, officers at checkpoints spent most of their time seizing cars from sober motorists who were illegal immigrants and cannot obtain driver’s licenses, an investigation by California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism last year found.
However, impoundments may soon become far less common.
Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department became the seventh California law enforcement agency in the past year to alter its policies to reduce the number of illegal immigrants’ cars taken at checkpoints.
Police Chief Charlie Beck told the Los Angeles Times that the agency’s checkpoint seizure policy had "stuck in my craw as one of the things we weren't doing the right way."
In fiscal year 2009, LAPD impounded more than 1,000 cars at the roadway operations, data from the state Office of Traffic Safety shows.
Going forward, at checkpoints LAPD officers are instructed to seize a vehicle only when it “cannot be released to a licensed driver” at the scene, according to an agency press release. Unlicensed drivers will have “a reasonable period of time” to find someone to legally remove their cars.
That is a significant shift from past practice.
California Watch’s reporting found that sobriety checkpoints across the state were increasingly turning into profitable operations for local police and tow companies because of impounds. In 2009, vehicle seizures generated an estimated $40 million in towing fees and police fines from checkpoint seizures.
Often, the operations would result in very few DUI arrests and dozens of cars impounded from unlicensed drivers.
The state’s vehicle code stipulates that if police impound an unlicensed motorist’s vehicle, they are to hold the car for 30 days. That hold generates more than $1,000 in tow storage charges for each car.
To date, Oakland, San Jose, Baldwin Park, Coachella, Cathedral City and Berkeley have altered their impound policies.
California cities frequently have a financial interest in impounding cars. Police departments charge impound release fees, commonly more than $100, and at times receive a cut of all tow revenues.
Tow operators traditionally argue that impounding the cars of unlicensed motorists helps to keep the state’s roads safer. The California Tow Truck Association has not taken a position concerning cities’ moves to reduce vehicle seizures, said Perry Shusta, the group’s president.
“I do believe there is a public safety issue there,” Shusta said. “But to tow or not to tow is not our call.”