This article written by California Watch, an investigative team run by Lowell Bergman, former “60 Minutes” producer, blew my mind. It was emailed to me by a Riverside County District Attorney investigator and previous participant in the sobriety checkpoint program while a member of the National City Police Department. It is reprinted in its entirety. It is also on line at the California Watch web site.
Sobriety checkpoints in California are increasingly turning into profitable operations for local police departments that are far more likely to seize cars from unlicensed motorists than catch drunken drivers.
An investigation by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley with California Watch has found that impounds at checkpoints in 2009 generated an estimated $40 million in towing fees and police fines – revenue that cities divide with towing firms.
Additionally, police officers received about $30 million in overtime pay for the DUI crackdowns, funded by the California Office of Traffic Safety.
In dozens of interviews over the past three months, law enforcement officials and tow truck operators say that vehicles are predominantly taken from minority motorists – often illegal immigrants.
In the course of its examination, the Investigative Reporting Program reviewed hundreds of pages of city financial records and police reports, and analyzed data documenting the results from every checkpoint that received state funding during the past two years. Among the findings:
. Sobriety checkpoints frequently screen traffic within, or near, Hispanic neighborhoods. Cities where Hispanics represent a majority of the population are seizing cars at three times the rate of cities with small minority populations. In South Gate, a Los Angeles County city where Hispanics make up 92 percent of the population, police confiscated an average of 86 vehicles per operation last fiscal year.
. The seizures appear to defy a 2005 federal appellate court ruling that determined police cannot impound cars solely because the driver is unlicensed. In fact, police across the state have ratcheted up vehicle seizures. Last year, officers impounded more than 24,000 cars and trucks at checkpoints. That total is roughly seven times higher than the 3,200 drunken driving arrests at roadway operations. The percentage of vehicle seizures has increased 53 percent compared to 2007.
. Departments frequently overstaff checkpoints with officers, all earning overtime. The Moreno Valley Police Department in Riverside County averaged 38 officers at each operation last year, six times more than federal guidelines say is required. Nearly 50 other local police and sheriff’s departments averaged 20 or more officers per checkpoint – operations that averaged three DUI arrests a night.
Law enforcement officials say demographics play no role in determining where police establish checkpoints.
Indeed, the Investigative Reporting Program’s analysis did not find evidence that police departments set up checkpoints to specifically target Hispanic neighborhoods. The operations typically take place on major thoroughfares near highways, and minority motorists are often caught in the checkpoints’ net.
“All we’re looking for is to screen for sobriety and if you have a licensed driver,” said Capt. Ralph Newcomb of the Montebello Police Department. “Where you’re from, what your status is, that never comes up.”
Additionally, the 2005 appellate court ruling includes exceptions, allowing police to seize a vehicle driven by an unlicensed motorist when abandoning it might put the public at risk.
Examples include vehicles parked on a narrow shoulder or obstructing fire lanes.
But reporters attending checkpoints in Sacramento, Hayward and Los Angeles observed officers impounding cars that appeared to pose no danger.
Reporters also noted that many of the drivers who lost their cars at these checkpoints were illegal immigrants, based on interviews with the drivers and police. They rarely challenge vehicle seizures or have the cash to recover their cars, studies and interviews show.
Some tow truck company officials relayed stories of immigrant mothers arriving at impound lots to remove baby car seats and children’s toys before leaving the vehicle to the tow firm.
“I have to stand here for days and watch them take their whole life out of their vehicles,” said Mattea Ezgar, an office manager at Terra Linda Towing in San Rafael.
This wasn’t what lawmakers intended when they passed an impound law 15 years ago – the same law that the federal court has since questioned, said David Roberti, former president of the state Senate.
“When something is that successful, then maybe it’s too easy to obtain an impoundment, which should usually be way more toward the exception than the rule,” Roberti said.
The impound law granted police the authority to seize unlicensed drivers’ cars for 30 days. The California Attorney General’s Office said in a written statement that the state law is murky in terms of whether vehicles driven by unlicensed motorists can be taken at all.
Police do not typically seize the cars of motorists arrested for drunken driving, meaning the owners can retrieve their vehicles the next day, according to law enforcement officials.
With support from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, California more than doubled its use of sobriety checkpoints the past three years.
To be sure, DUI checkpoints have saved countless lives on the nation’s roadways and have brought thousands of drunken drivers to justice. And by inspecting driver’s licenses, police catch motorists driving unlawfully, typically without insurance, and temporarily remove them from the road.
State officials have declared that 2010 will be the “year of the checkpoint.” Police are scheduling 2,500 of the operations in every region of California. Some departments have begun to broaden the definition of sobriety checkpoints to include checking for unlicensed drivers.
To recover an impounded vehicle, owners have to pay between $1,000 and $4,000 in tow and storage charges and fines assessed by local governments, municipal finance records show.
Owners abandon their cars at tow lots roughly 70 percent of the time, said Perry Shusta, owner of Arrowhead Towing in Antioch and vice president of the California Tow Truck Association. Many of the unrecovered cars are sold by the tow firms, which keep the proceeds.
Cities show big disparity in DUI arrests and vehicle seizures.
The city of Montebello’s DUI checkpoints rank among California’s least effective at getting drunks off the road, the Investigative Reporting Program found. Last year, officers there failed to conduct a single field sobriety test at three of the city’s five roadway operations, state records show.
Montebello collected upward of $95,000 during the last fiscal year from checkpoints, including grant money for police overtime.
The California Office of Traffic Safety, which is administered in part by officials at UC Berkeley, continues to fund Montebello’s operations, providing a fresh $37,000 grant for this year.
Most of the state’s 3,200 roadblocks over the past two years occurred in or near Hispanic neighborhoods, the Investigative Reporting Program’s analysis shows. Sixty-one percent of the checkpoints occurred in locations with at least 31 percent Hispanic population. About 17 percent of the state’s checkpoints occurred in areas with the lowest Hispanic population – under 18 percent.
Further, police impound the most cars per checkpoint in cities where Hispanics are a majority of the population, according to state traffic safety statistics and U.S. Census data.
Officers do not inquire about the drivers’ residency status. Nor do they contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they suspect unlicensed motorists are in the country illegally.
For 12 years, Francisco Ruiz has run El Potro, a Latin music nightclub, at the northeast corner of A Street and Hesperian Boulevard in Hayward. Not once had he seen a DUI checkpoint. Then, in 2009, the city’s police department conducted four operations just outside his front door.
“They’re not taking drunk drivers,” Ruiz said as he watched cars crawl through a Dec. 18 checkpoint at the intersection. “They’re taking people without a license.”
An hour into the operation that evening, officers had yet to make a DUI arrest, reporters observed. But about a half dozen cars were impounded, leaving drivers stranded.
Only one of the drivers could show he was a legal U.S. resident.
The state does not consistently collect data on where local police departments set up checkpoints. A majority of California law enforcement agencies declined to release records showing which intersections they target, or what transpired at checkpoints, making it difficult to perform a statistical analysis of seizures in heavily minority communities.
But cities across the state operate checkpoints in high minority communities, the Investigative Reporting Program found through demographic data and more than three dozen interviews with law enforcement officials at DUI crackdowns.
Checkpoints in cities where Hispanics are the largest share of the population seized 34 cars per operation, a rate three times higher than cities with the smallest Hispanic populations, the Investigative Reporting Program’s analysis shows.
The disparity between vehicles impounds and DUI arrests exist in virtually every region of California.
In San Rafael, 10 of the city’s 12 sobriety checkpoints the past two years took place on streets surrounding the city’s heavily Hispanic neighborhoods. Those operations resulted in four DUI arrests and 121 impounded cars for driver’s license violations.
The LAPD’s driver’s license impounds doubled the past two years. One operation in December netted 64 vehicle seizures and four drunken driving arrests.
Funding for DUI crackdowns plays a major role.
The federal government provides the California Office of Traffic Safety about $100 million each year to promote responsible driving that reduces roadway deaths. Of that, $30 million goes into programs that fund drunken driving crackdowns, particularly checkpoints.
Police overtime accounts for more than 90 percent of the expense of sobriety checkpoints. Law enforcement agencies tend to use more officers than a checkpoint requires, according to guidelines established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Statewide, police departments on average deployed 18 officers at each checkpoint, according to state data. The federal traffic safety agency advises that police can set up checkpoints with as few as six officers.
The additional dozen officers typical at a California roadway operation cost state and federal taxpayers an extra $5.5 million during the 2008-2009 fiscal year, according to the Investigative Reporting Program’s analysis.
At least a dozen officers spent hours sitting and chatting at an operation in early January in downtown Los Angeles. A couple of officers smoked cigars as they watched cars go through the screening.
California police have seized the cars of unlicensed drivers for 15 years under the state law that allows such vehicles to be impounded for 30 days.
But in 2005, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an Oregon case that law enforcement can’t impound a vehicle if the only offense is unlicensed driving. To do so would violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects everyone within the United States, whether they are legal residents or not.
One exception is called the “community caretaker” doctrine, which permits police to impound a car if it poses a threat to public safety, is parked illegally or would be vandalized imminently if left in place.
The ruling dramatically altered the law regarding vehicle impounds. In response, the Legislative Counsel of California in 2007 called into question the legality of the state’s impound procedures.
A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s impound law is awaiting oral arguments before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later this year. The state and several cities that are defendants argue that impounds are penalties for a criminal offense, and therefore car owners are not subject to Fourth Amendment protection.
Former state Sen. Roberti, then chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, said he and his fellow lawmakers did not consider how the impound law might impact unlicensed drivers.
“It turned out to be a far more vigorous enforcement than any of us would have dreamed of at the time,” he said.
Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.