A pair of bills now making their way through the California Legislature would, if passed in their current versions, make it more difficult for patrol officers overseeing sobriety checkpoints to seize the vehicles of illegal immigrants.
The authors of the two bills — AB 353 and AB 1389 — acknowledge they're providing cover to undocumented, unlicensed drivers who lose their vehicles at the checkpoints if they aren't intoxicated.
California law enforcement leaders have taken a formal stance opposing AB 1389 and told POLICE Magazine they may be able to stomach changes that AB 353 would implement.
Under current California law, officers operating a DUI checkpoint can impound the vehicles of intoxicated, unlicensed, or uninsured drivers. After a vehicle is impounded, it can be held for up to 30 days and, if unclaimed, sold at auction.
Supporters of current law say the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's 2000 study, "Unlicensed to Kill," shows that motorists without licenses pose enough of a risk to justify a vehicle seizure.
Vehicle seizures can be a lucrative business for cities, especially Bell, Maywood, Montebello, Escondido, and others. In Bell, the practice has led to corruption, as city leaders pulled in millions each year partially from impound money.
Montebello collected $95,000 last year in impound revenue, and officers didn't perform a field sobriety test at three of the five checkpoints, reports California Watch.
The sponsor of AB 1389, Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Napa Valley), has said his bill implements Ingersoll v. Palmer, a 1987 state Supreme Court ruling setting the protocol for running a DUI checkpoint. The bill would limit daytime DUI checkpoints and require agencies to make the location random rather than setting them up at high-incident locations.
"There are times when people drive drunk during the day," Newark Police Chief James Leal tells POLICE. "There are times when we've set up checkpoints during the day during high alcohol consumption times. They're suggesting we don't do that anymore."
The goal of the bill is to "provide clarity and uniformity" for law enforcement and the community, David Miller, a senior consultant to Miller, writes in an e-mail.
"It is not [Allen's] intention to prevent law enforcement from getting intoxicated drivers off the road, but he does feel that DUI checkpoints should be focused on deterring people from driving under the influence," Miller wrote to POLICE Magazine. "Clearly, setting up a checkpoint on a Saturday near Home Depot or on a Sunday near a Catholic Church is not about deterring people from driving under the influence."
AB 353, which is sponsored by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), would eliminate the 30-day holding period and prevent immediate impounding of vehicles by undocumented, unlicensed drivers. The bill would allow a licensed family member or friend to pick up the vehicle up to 30 minutes before the end of the checkpoint.
According to Assemblyman Cedillo's office, in 2009 police impounded more than 24,000 vehicles at checkpoints, which is about seven times higher than the 3,200 drunk-driving arrests.
The assemblyman wants to end an "unfair practice that has been extremely costly to unlicensed drivers whose cars have been impounded for 30 days," he said in a statement. "This effectively results in forfeiture of the car, since towing and impoundment fees may well exceed the value of the vehicle. We need to focus on impounding drivers arrested for DUI. We need to give an opportunity to unlicensed drivers to retrieve their cars."
Chief Leal, chair of the traffic safety committee of the California Police Chief's Association and California Peace Officers Association, said law enforcement leaders are negotiating with Assemblyman Cedillo to make changes.
"We're trying to get it to the point that we can all live with it," Leal said. "At the end of the day, law enforcement's purpose is to protect the public."
By Paul Clinton