Police operating motorist sobriety checkpoints in California are impounding cars of unlicensed drivers at a far higher rate than they're arresting drunks behind the wheel, says a new report by Ryan Gabrielson of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley. The report says most vehicles seized belong to minority motorists, many of them undocumented immigrants, and details the resulting hardships for people often living on the economic edge.
The report also found that last year, impounding at checkpoints, under a 15-year-old law letting police keep an unlicensed driver's car for 30 days, generated $40 million in towing fees and police fines. Only California permits such seizures. By contrast, drunk drivers can usually get their vehicles back the next day.
Writing on www.californiawatch.org, Gabrielson said law enforcement officials assert that demographics don't influence checkpoint locations, and his investigation didn't find evidence the checkpoints intentionally targeted Latino neighborhoods. Officers don't ask drivers' residency status, nor do they report to immigration authorities unlicensed drivers they think might be undocumented.
Nonetheless, the report found over 60 percent of the state's 3,200 roadblocks in the last two years were in places with at least 31 percent Latino population, while only 17 percent of checkpoints were in areas with less than 18 percent Latinos.
State traffic statistics and U.S. Census data also show police impound the most cars per checkpoint in cities with majority Latino population.
The report also found vehicle seizures way out of proportion to drunk driving arrests. In the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, population 92 percent Latino, for example, police averaged 96 impounds per checkpoint but just over four drunk-driving arrests.
Despite a state Attorney General's Office opinion that the right to seize vehicles of unlicensed drivers is unclear under law, state officials call 2010 "the year of the checkpoint," with some 2,500 actions scheduled throughout the state.
A 2005 decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals holds that taking a car solely because the driver is unlicensed is "unreasonable seizure" under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment.
Owners of impounded vehicles who reclaim them after the 30-day period typically pay between $1,000 and $4,000 in towing and storage charges, and fines. Many drivers simply abandon the vehicles, which are then auctioned off.
Speaking during the PBS NewsHour Feb. 15, California Senator Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, charged that the impounding of vehicles of unlicensed California drivers is both "illegal and unconstitutional." Cedillo said the practice aims to raise revenue for cash-strapped cities. Click here for more information.
The NewsHour program and Gabrielson's report both cited the huge impact vehicle seizures have on the undocumented workers. One worker told the NewsHour his car is essential to get to his job. After his was taken, he abandoned it and bought another. "I know, if they stop me, I will lose my car again. But if I lose it, I will buy another, because I need one."
Earlier this month Cedillo told the Spanish-language news agency EFE, "It's inhumane for the police to take the cars from the workers because they don't have a license and they leave all the things they carry inside the vehicles thrown onto the sidewalk." He said the solution is to let undocumented immigrants have drivers' licenses, as was the case until 1993, when Republican Governor Pete Wilson signed into law a measure barring such licenses.
Cedillo has proposed legislation to provide drivers licenses to the undocumented, consistent with the federal Real ID Act, only to have Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger veto it twice.