Sobriety checkpoints were meant to nab drunken drivers instead of taking away cars, lots of them. But as reported in today's Bee, they've become cash cows for police departments and towing firms -- often at the expense of Latino motorists.
This hijacking of the checkpoints is an unfair, and likely illegal, corruption of what is an effective tool to keep dangerous drivers off California's highways.
Last year at DUI checkpoints statewide, officers impounded more than 24,000 vehicles from drivers caught without a license, but made only 3,200 drunken driving arrests, according to the nonpartisan Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley.
To recover their cars, owners paid an average of $1,805 in towing fees and police fines -- a total of more than $13 million statewide. In about 70 percent of seizures, the owners didn't retrieve their vehicles, which were then were sold at auction, generating an additional $29 million. And the officers running the checkpoints collected about $30 million in overtime last year.
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California law allows police to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers for 30 days if they endanger public safety. But at some checkpoints witnessed by reporters, the seized vehicles appeared just fine.
There's another problem. While the investigation didn't find that police target Latino areas, it did find that the result of setting up checkpoints on major streets is that many Latinos are caught in the net. In cities with large Latino populations, police impounded their cars at three times the rate in cities with smaller Latino populations.
We know that cash-strapped cities can use the added revenue. But that doesn't justify this legally problematic practice.
There's a case pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that would end this practice.
We think it's time to put this cash cow out to pasture.