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 the past two years. Among the findings:
Sobriety checkpoints frequently screen traffic within, or near, Latino neighborhoods. Cities where Latinos 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 Latinos make up 92 percent of the population, police confiscated an average of 86 vehicles per operation in the 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 is about seven times higher than the 3,200 drunken driving arrests at roadway operations. The percentage of vehicle seizures has increased 53 percent compared with 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 driving-under-the- influence arrests a night.
Law enforcement officials say demographics play no role in determining where police establish checkpoints.
The Investigative Reporting Program's analysis did not find evidence that police departments set up checkpoints to target Latino 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 cars driven by unlicensed motorists when abandoning the vehicles might threaten public safety.
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.
Ex-senator: Not our intent
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 statement that state law is murky in terms of whether vehicles driven by unlicensed motorists can be taken.
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 roads 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 $1,000 to $4,000 in tow and storage charges and fines assessed by local governments, municipal finance records show.
Owners abandon their cars at tow lots about 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.
No field sobriety tests in one city
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 more than $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 the University of California at Berkeley, continues to fund Montebello's operations, providing a $37,000 grant for this year.
Many of the state's 1,700 roadblocks each of the past two years occurred in or near Latino neighborhoods, the Investigative Reporting Program's analysis shows.
Further, police impound the most cars per checkpoint in cities where Latinos are a majority of the population, according to state traffic safety statistics and U.S. census data.
Officers do not ask about the drivers' residency status. Nor do they contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they suspect unlicensed motorists are in the country illegally.
The state does not consistently collect data on where 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 Latinos are the largest share of the population seized 34 cars per operation, a rate three times higher than cities with the smallest Latino populations, the Investigative Reporting Program's analysis shows.
The disparity between vehicle 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 Latino neighborhoods. Those operations resulted in four DUI arrests and 121 impounded cars for driver's license violations.
The Los Angeles Police Department averaged six DUI arrests per checkpoint in 2009, state data shows, more than most California departments.
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.