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DUI Checkpoints Meet Rising Skepticism

February 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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California has ramped up the use of sobriety checkpoints to target intoxication and crack down on unlicensed drivers. But its policy of seizing vehicles is under fire both for targeting undocumented immigrants and for generating an estimated $40 million in revenues.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the fallout from the increased use by police of traffic sobriety checkpoints in California. That’s the focus of a three-month probe by Ryan Gabrielson, a fellow in the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley. The program’s director, special correspondent — he is the program’s director.

Special correspondent Lowell Bergman narrates this report.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Every year, 12,000 people die on the nation’s roads in accidents caused by drunk drivers. Over 1,000 die in California alone. And, in an effort to save lives, California has become the leader in the use of checkpoints to get drunk drivers off the roads.

POLICE OFFICER: Good evening. This is a driver’s license DUI checkpoint. Have you had anything to drink tonight, sir?

DRIVER: No.

LOWELL BERGMAN: But, even if you are sober, this checkpoint means trouble for some drivers.

POLICE OFFICER: This is a driver’s license DUI checkpoint. Can I see your license?

LOWELL BERGMAN: Police don’t just go after drunk drivers at these checkpoints. They are looking for people driving without a license.

DAVID RAGLAND, professor, University of California, Berkeley: It’s a common perception that driving without a license is a victimless crime. And, in fact, it’s not.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Professor David Ragland of the University of California, Berkeley, helps administer millions of dollars in federal funds for DUI checkpoints.

DAVID RAGLAND: In 20 percent of traffic fatalities, there’s at least one unlicensed driver involved. And the risk of being in a hit-and-run crash is even higher. Therefore, it is extremely important that we find a way to get people without licenses off the road.

POLICE OFFICER: This is a ticket for driving without a license.

DRIVER: Oh, OK.

POLICE OFFICER: Can I have you sign at the bottom next to the circled X?

LOWELL BERGMAN: And, in California, if you don’t have a license, most police don’t just give you a citation. They do something no other state does.

POLICE OFFICER: All right. Well, because you don’t have a license, we’re towing the car. Can I have the key, please?

LOWELL BERGMAN: If you don’t have a license, they tow your car and impound it for a month.

POLICE OFFICER: As it stands right now, it is a 30-day tow. Do you understand that?

DRIVER: Thirty days?

POLICE OFFICER: Thirty days. We’re giving you the phone number.

LOWELL BERGMAN: If you are caught driving drunk, you can pick up your vehicle the next morning. But if are you caught driving without a license, you lose your car for at least 30 days.

Last year, 24,000 vehicles were impounded at California checkpoints because an unlicensed driver was caught at the wheel.

Professor Ragland says the 30-day impound makes sense.

DAVID RAGLAND: If someone is drive without a license, you want to keep their car long enough that they can’t just get their car immediately and start driving again.

LOWELL BERGMAN: But there is a fundamental problem with this practice, according to Democratic State Senator Gilbert Cedillo.

GILBERT CEDILLO, D,California state senator: Impounding the vehicles of unlicensed motorists in California is illegal and unconstitutional.

LOWELL BERGMAN: What Senator Cedillo is referring to is this decision in 2005 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It concluded that it was — quote — “unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment to impound a vehicle if the only justification is that the driver is unlicensed.”

Martin Mayer is the lawyer for California’s Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Associations.

MARTIN MAYER, attorney, California’s Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Associations: What was pointed out by the Ninth Circuit was that, in the United States, you have to have a warrant to seize any personal property, with very few exceptions.

LOWELL BERGMAN: In this memo, Mayer told his clients that the ruling would — quote — “impact upon an officer’s authority to have a vehicle towed if the only charge against the driver is driving without a license.”

MARTIN MAYER: If they are doing that, and they can’t justify it, it would be an unconstitutional seizure of personal property.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Since the court ruling, some law enforcement agencies, like the California Highway Patrol, have changed their policies. But most police departments continue to routinely impound cars.

In fact, the number of vehicles seized at California checkpoints has doubled in the five years since the decision. Senator Cedillo says the reason for this is simple: money.

GILBERT CEDILLO: It’s all to raise revenue for these local governments. This is the simple reason why they are doing this, to raise revenue for their cash-strapped cities.

LOWELL BERGMAN: The revenue comes in two ways. First, $30 million in federal funds pays for police overtime and operating costs at checkpoints like these. And then the impounded vehicles provide a profit. After fines are paid to the city along, with 30 days in storage fees, a vehicle typically produces $2,000 in revenue, sometimes more if it is not claimed and then auctioned.

POLICE OFFICER: OK. Thank you.

LOWELL BERGMAN: An analysis of records obtained by the Investigative Reporting Program shows that, last year, impounds brought in over $40 million in revenue, shared by tow operators and municipal governments.

And documents reveal that, for every one DUI arrest at these sobriety checkpoints, there can be as many as 60 people cited for driving without a license, 60 vehicles seized.

POLICE OFFICER: Because you are unlicensed, your vehicle is going to be towed for 30 days.

LOWELL BERGMAN: So, who is losing their vehicles? According to police at checkpoints and our own reporting around the state, most of the unlicensed drivers are undocumented Hispanic immigrants.

GILBERT CEDILLO: Cities are exploiting a broken immigration system, exploiting broken state laws, taking advantage and exploiting the most vulnerable members of our society.

LOWELL BERGMAN: By state law, undocumented immigrants are barred from getting a driver’s license, but they can buy a car, like this man who we will call Bernardino, an undocumented immigrant who drive to his construction jobs.

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT (through translator): I know that I am doing something wrong. I shouldn’t be doing it, but I need to. I need my car for work. Without a car, I have nothing.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Bernardino told us he was stopped at a checkpoint.

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT (through translator): They asked me for my license. I said I didn’t have one. They asked for I.D., and I said I left it at home. They said, OK, we’re sorry, but we are going to have to take your car.

LOWELL BERGMAN: What happened to Bernardino? Like almost all of the undocumented immigrants who are stopped at checkpoints, after their vehicle is seized, they simply walk away.

Law enforcement officers at checkpoints around the state told us they don’t call immigration authorities.

Sergeant David Hargadon of the Sacramento Police Department:

SERGEANT DAVID HARGADON, Sacramento Police Department: We don’t check with immigration. You know, it’s either they have a license or they don’t. And, if they don’t have a license, they are issued a citation and sent on their way, obviously, without a car, but — but — but they are free to go.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Bernardino, like two-thirds of those who vehicles are impounded at checkpoints, never claimed his vehicle. He simply went out and bought another one.

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT (through translator): 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.

LOWELL BERGMAN: None of the police chiefs in cities where we observed checkpoints would talk with us on camera. And the state attorney general’s office told us that they believe it is — quote — “unclear” whether or not these impounds are still unconstitutional. They await a ruling on a new case that is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the California Office of Traffic Safety plans even more checkpoints this year, declaring 2010 the year of the checkpoint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That report was produced by Lowell Bergman, who heads the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley. It was produced in collaboration with The New York Times.