California traffic safety officials have followed the few rules that exist for overseeing sobriety checkpoints set up by hundreds of police departments, the state auditor reported yesterday.
No federal law or state statute governs what happens at the roadway operations, according to the auditor's report. And the California Office of Traffic Safety is not required to closely monitor what happens at checkpoints it funds, which now number more than 2,000 a year.
Chris Murphy, the traffic safety office’s director, said the audit validates that the state funds lawful, lifesaving checkpoints.
“It speaks volumes to the work that my staff and law enforcement is doing,” Murphy said. “The checkpoint program has been running very efficiently and effectively.”
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Fatalities on California’s roadways dropped nearly 12 percent from 2009 to 2010, which Murphy partially attributes to checkpoints.
The traffic safety office spent $16.8 million for police overtime at more than 2,500 operations during the 2010 fiscal year. Auditors noted that those sobriety checkpoints resulted in almost 28,000 citations to unlicensed drivers, compared with roughly 7,000 drunken driving arrests.
California Watch reported two years ago that sobriety checkpoints were doing more than just taking unlicensed drivers off the road. Police took those motorists’ cars, too, often impounding them for 30 days.
With city release fees and tow charges, car owners often had to pay $1,500 or more to retrieve their vehicles. When owners could not afford that price, tow operators typically would sell the cars at lien sales.
Cities and firms generated an estimated $40 million in revenue from vehicle seizures at checkpoints. The majority of drivers losing their cars were illegal immigrants who are not permitted to have California licenses.
Auditors document that local governments have used impounds as a cash source through fees, as well as contracts with tow companies that require cities get a cut of car storage charges and lien sales.
“For example, the Los Angeles Police Department collects 7 percent of all gross revenue earned by tow contractors for police-related tows,” the report states. “Similarly, the cities of Oakland and Fresno receive $40 per towed vehicle as a franchise fee under their tow agreements.”
A new state law, enacted Jan. 1, restricts police officers’ authority to impound a car at a checkpoint if the driver’s only offense is unlicensed driving.
The disparity between the numbers of vehicle impounds and drunken driving arrests in recent years doesn’t “suggest that these checkpoints were performed improperly or are not achieving their intended outcomes,” auditors wrote.
Unlicensed drivers are riskier drivers. A study [PDF] last year by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nearly a fifth of all fatal car collisions in the United States from 2007 to 2009 involved a driver with a suspended or revoked license or no license at all.
California’s traffic safety office is not required to observe the checkpoints or confirm that data it receives from police departments about the operations is accurate. Murphy said that level of oversight would be logistically impossible.
Instead, the agency informally has sent two retired police officers to watch 24 checkpoints over the past four years, the report said.