In theory, sobriety checkpoints are supposed to promote all sorts of worthy goals, such as promoting safety on the roads. The law enforcement claim is that accomplishing these goals makes the inconvenience of stopping ALL drivers who pass through a certain area justifiable.
In practice however, the safety benefits of drunk driving checkpoints are unproven, and they have become burdensome for drivers, particularly immigrants. In effect, they are a cash cow for cities collecting impounding and towing fees from unlicensed drivers, particularly immigrants. Under pressure from advocates for immigrants' rights, numerous California cities are reconsidering their impoundment policies.
California Impound Law
According to state law, California law enforcement officers can impound cars driven by drivers with no license, or who have a revoked or suspended license. Once impounded, the cars are held for 30 days. The registered owners must pay the towing and storage fees to recover their vehicles. These fees can often run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Statewide statistics show that in 2009, officers impounded over 24,000 vehicles from sobriety checkpoints, which was a 53 percent increase from 2007. This is around seven times higher than the 3,200 arrests for DUI that occurred at the same checkpoints.
Data like this raises the question of whether the main purpose of the sobriety checkpoints really is to confront drunk driving. Or are checkpoints essentially intended to generate much-needed money for local governments through impound and towing fees?
Vehicle Seizure as Cash Cow
Recent reports by the nonprofit group California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley have pointed to how remarkably profitable vehicle seizure at sobriety checkpoints is for cities and towing companies. In 2009 alone, impounding brought in about $40 million in towing charges and other fines for local police and towing companies. The city of Oakland alone towed and impounded 2,058 cars from unlicensed drivers in 2010, earning the city $288,120 in fees.
Are Checkpoints Effective at Enforcing DUI Law?
It is highly doubtful whether sobriety checkpoints are effective in catching DUI offenders. The disproportion between the number of drunk driving arrests and the number of vehicles seizures raises all sorts of questions.
There is also what appears to be the troubling targeting of immigrant drivers, who are not allowed to have drivers' licenses under California law and are often left stranded at checkpoints when their cars are towed and impounded. In 2009, Oakland checkpoints impounded 11 cars for every one DUI arrest. These numbers have launched campaigns by immigrant rights groups to change impound policies, especially those targeting immigrants.
Julia Wallace, a neighborhood activist in Los Angeles, summarized the concern about targeting immigrants this way: "We don't think the police should be able to take people's cars away because they don't have paper work, Julia Wallace said. "The punishment doesn't fit the crime."
Changing Impoundment Policies
In response to concerns about ineffective and discriminatory vehicle impoundment, key California cities are reconsidering or revising their policies on vehicle impoundment at checkpoints. Late last year, for example, the Oakland Police Department revised its policy and will no longer impound unlicensed drivers' cars automatically for driving without a license offenses. Officers will instead allow these drivers to park their cars in a legal area or have a licensed driver come to get their vehicle and move it. In San Francisco, unlicensed drivers have 20 minutes to do this.
In Los Angeles, in early March, police made a similar change in policy. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced that police would now be required to contact the registered owner of a vehicle stopped at a sobriety checkpoint. If a licensed owner moves the vehicle in a reasonable time, it will not be impounded.
Other police departments that are considering or have already revised their impoundment policies include San Jose, Baldwin Park, Coachella, Cathedral City and Berkeley. The revised policies allow unlicensed drivers stopped at checkpoints to legally park their cars or find licensed drivers to take their vehicles home.
Immigrants' rights activists have called on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to make a comparable change. They are also calling for the state legislature to change the law that allows a 30-day impound in the first place.
If you have questions about California's sobriety checkpoints or vehicle impoundment, contact a California criminal defense attorney today to discuss your legal rights and options.