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Public Safety | Daily Report | DUI Checkpoints

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.

Our reporting found police departments across the state had impounded seven cars for every drunken driving arrest made at the checkpoints during the 2009 fiscal year. Further, the seizures had turned checkpoints into moneymakers for local governments.

The legislative analysis shows the bill is intended to do two things:

• Ensure checkpoints focus on drunken drivers. It would reaffirm court-ordered requirement that law enforcement departments choose checkpoint locations to target intersections with “a high incidence of DUI arrests or a high volume of DUI-related accidents,” the analysis states.

• Provide unlicensed motorists caught at checkpoints an opportunity to find a legal driver and avoid impoundment. Police would still be permitted to seize cars when drivers are intoxicated, have revoked or suspended licenses, flee from officers, or the car serves as evidence of a crime (other than unlicensed driving).

California Watch’s reporting documented how revenues from checkpoint impounds provide a tidy profit for cities, bringing in more revenue that it takes to operate the checkpoints.

This finding was separately confirmed by the Los Angeles Times’ investigation of corruption in the city of Bell. Officials there used impound cash to help fund their swollen salaries. Times reporters discovered the city manager’s total yearly income was $1.5 million.

The state Office of Traffic Safety pays out millions of dollars in grants each year to cover police officer overtime at checkpoints, the main expense of the operations.

When officers seize a vehicle from an unlicensed driver, state law currently requires that the car be held for 30 days. Car owners must pay the city an impound release fee to retrieve their mode of transportation. That charge is frequently more than $100; a few cities charge more than $300.

But government charges are the smallest part of the bill.

Tow firms charge daily storage fees that, over the course of a 30-day impound, become a $1,500 expense for owners if they want their car back. If they do not, or cannot afford the tab, the firms can auction the vehicle.

Cities contract with tow operators and, in recent years, have increasingly required a cut of this impound revenue. For example, the city of Escondido, situated north of San Diego, collects a combined $400,000 a year from four tow firms receiving city business, contract records show.

Immigrant advocates allege that some police agencies target Hispanic communities to increase impound numbers. Law enforcement and state officials strongly deny any motivation besides improving public safety.

“I don’t have any evidence of that at all,” Chris Murphy, the state’s traffic safety director, told the Associated Press last month.

So far, AB 1389 has met little opposition from police departments and unions.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has said the proposed law change would not significantly affect its roadway operations.

“Impounding cars has never been a priority for the sheriff's department,” Steve Whitmore, a department spokesman, said in an interview with the Pasadena Star-News.

However, numbers on checkpoint results suggest otherwise.

At holiday sobriety checkpoints last fiscal year, the sheriff’s office impounded 22 cars for every DUI arrest, according to data from the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at UC Berkeley. Deputies cited 2,444 unlicensed drivers.

The research center runs California’s largest checkpoint grant program, funneling state and federal traffic safety cash to fund operations during holiday periods.

Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies were hardly alone in the disparity between impounds and drunken driving arrests.

Before reforming its impound policy last year, the Baldwin Park Police Department seized 26 cars per DUI arrest at holiday checkpoints. The rate in South Gate was 36 cars for every one drunken driver.

The Escondido Police Department seized 181 cars, a number seven times larger than the 23 drunken driving arrests made. The data shows officers cited 136 unlicensed drivers, likely all illegal immigrants.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report, DUI Checkpoints


Comments are closed for this story.
impoundguy's picture
• Provide unlicensed motorists caught at checkpoints an opportunity to find a legal driver and avoid impoundment. Police would still be permitted to seize cars when drivers are intoxicated, have revoked or suspended licenses, flee from officers, or the car serves as evidence of a crime (other than unlicensed driving). SO LET ME SEE IF I HAVE THIS RIGHT? If you had a drivers license at one time and now it's suspended or revoked your vehicle gets impounded...however if you NEVER had a drivers license then you get to call a fellow illegal with a D/L to take your car home for you so you will have something to drive "the next day" when you go to work in morning, even though you still don't have a D/L...seems fair to me!!.... so your really better off to never have had a D/L.
jskdn2's picture
Miranda v. City of Cornelius is fundamentally different from the issues in question and here's a synopsis of the facts from the decision: "On April 10, 2003, Mrs. Miranda slowly drove the Ford Aerostar van of her husband, Mr. Miranda, around the neighborhood as her husband taught her how to drive. Although Mr. Miranda is a licensed and insured driver with valid registration of the vehicle, Mrs. Miranda did not have a driver's license." Furthermore the car was impounded after "Mrs. Miranda pulled into the driveway in front of the Mirandas' home." Now there's nothing wrong with not impounding a car that is registered and insured, as the law requires, and that can be driven away by a licensed driver with the permission of the car's registered owner, if they are different persons. But without all those elements, valid registration, valid insurance, licensed driver with permission of the car's registered owner, the police would be complicit in aiding the violating the law. And if fact that is really what this issue is really about, the aiding and abetting in the violation of our immigration laws by enabling illegal immigrants in this state to avoid consequences attendant to their illegal status. That agenda is being promoted by the California Democratic Party, newspapers and the other usual suspects, like Ryan Gabrielson.
Jen23's picture
I can understand for DUI's, but generally impounding cars is not the thing to do in this bad economy!!!

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