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PBS Ombudsman

What Is Influencing DUI Charges in California?

An eight-and-a-half-minute segment on the PBS NewsHour last Monday evening about the use of sobriety checkpoints on California highways produced a small, brief but critical flurry of e-mail from viewers who felt that the presentation was too sympathetic to undocumented, illegal immigrants in this country who drive without licenses and are often trapped at these checkpoints and have their vehicles impounded on the spot for 30 days. As the program points out, under state law, undocumented immigrants are barred from getting a driver's license, but they can buy a car.

The segment is reported on the air by special correspondent Lowell Bergman, who is also the director of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley. The increased use by police of traffic sobriety checkpoints was the subject of a three-month investigation by Ryan Gabrielson, a fellow at the Berkeley program. The report also was produced in collaboration with The New York Times.

I'm sympathetic to those who feel that reporting about immigration issues too often fails to take into account the views of those who suffer in various ways from the inflow of persons who enter this country illegally, or who object to this form of immigration simply because it breaks the law. And you could argue that this filmed report had moments when you could or did, indeed, feel sorry for what appeared to be a hard-working but undocumented worker without a license who had to keep working and therefore had to keep buying cars if he was to survive in the environment that is California.

On the other hand, as a viewer, I thought this film overall was a plus, especially for those of us who don't live in California and were not aware of these practices. I have one reservation, but in general I felt as though it captured a fascinating slice of the larger issue in a way that left the viewer able to form an opinion, or just able to absorb one more piece of evidence about the ways that a broken immigration system threatens so many people on all sides.

The segment used clear, mostly fact-based, easy-to-follow reporting and narration. It was not about the entire issue of immigration, but was valuable, I thought, in shining a light on what to many people is a little known aspect of the larger problem.

Bergman reports that every year 12,000 people die on the nation's roads because of drunk drivers and more than 1,000 of these are in California. But these DUI (driving under the influence) checkpoints also require showing an officer a license, and Bergman reports that records show that for every one actual DUI arrest at these California checkpoints there can be as many as 60 people issued citations for driving without a license. Most of those are issued to undocumented Hispanic immigrants, he reports. However, while most states just issue a citation for driving without a license, California tows and impounds the vehicles immediately, something that also raises a lot of money. Last year, 24,000 vehicles were impounded. So the DUI checkpoints also serve as a way to ensnare unlicensed drivers, many of whom are illegal immigrants — even if they are sober — and complicate their lives here. Yet the police say, on screen, that do not notify U.S. immigration authorities.

At the outset of the segment, David Ragland, a Berkeley professor who helps administer federal funds for this checkpoint project, makes the case for the value of this procedure, pointing out that in 20 percent of traffic fatalities, an unlicensed driver is involved, and that the numbers are even higher for hit-and-run cases. "Therefore, it is extremely important," he says, "that we find a way to get people without licenses off the road" and that's why the "30-day impoundment makes sense."

Are There Other Statistics?

What Ragland, and the program, do not go on to address however is whether there are any statistics relating to unlicensed drivers who were also illegal immigrants and were involved in accidents, DUI or otherwise. That would have strengthened the segment and its credibility, in my view. However, when I asked about this, Gabrielson explained in a message that "police told me they view the unlicensed driver issue as a separate traffic safety concern from drunk driving. So, while surely some unlicensed get DUIs, we didn't pull such numbers. In fact, the state doesn't produce that data on any regular basis, to my knowledge." Bergman said it was his "understanding" that those numbers — unlicensed drivers who are undocumented workers involved in DUI or other accidents — "are not public, if, in fact, they exist." Some brief explanation in the segment about this point, which was likely to occur to some viewers, would have been helpful, in my view.

As I watched this NewsHour segment it also had a ring of familiarity. It reminded me very much of a broadcast on the weekly PBS newsmagazine NOW on PBS a year ago that had a similar theme and was about the controversial sheriff of Arizona's huge Maricopa County and the way he dealt with the illegal immigration issue and, especially, undocumented immigrants in cars and trucks. As I looked back over it, one of the reporters at the time was Ryan Gabrielson. The NOW segment had originated with the earlier reporting by Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the small East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., that would earn the paper a Pulitzer Prize. The NOW program was also quite controversial and I wrote about it at the time.

Here Are the Letters

Is it supposed to be a bad thing that unlicensed illegal aliens are inconvenienced by California DUI checkpoints? Many law-abiding citizens would like to see ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] contacted when foreigners with no identification are found, with deportation to follow.

The segment included a sympathetic interview with an illegally employed foreigner, as well as pronouncements from [state senator] "One-Bill Gil" Cedillo [D-Calif.], the infamous proponent of drivers' licenses for illegal aliens. But where is the balancing view of the majority of Americans, that immigration should be legal, controlled and reduced? With unemployed citizens now numbering at around 15 million, liberating the eight million jobs held by illegal aliens (according to Pew Hispanic Foundation) would be a boon for the common good of the nation.

NewsHour might also have interviewed the Kudlis family of Aurora, Colorado. Their three-year-old son Marten was killed in 2008 by an illegal alien driver who had been arrested — but not deported — 16 times over five years previous to the crash that killed the boy and two adult women. The criminal trial continues this week, and the parents have also filed suit against local law enforcement agencies which failed to deport the dangerous alien even after more than a dozen opportunities. The California checkpoint policy is too permissive toward lawbreaking foreigners, not too tough, because public safety is supposed be law enforcement's top priority.

Berkeley, CA

The piece started off very well and caught my interest as a recent victim of a hit and run collision. Alas, Mr. Bergman veers off the road like a drunken driver. The illegal aliens are transformed into undocumented immigrants and magically changed from law breakers into tragic victims.

Sorry NewsHour/PBS/Bergman. I don't want illegal aliens driving. It is terrible public policy. Law abiding citizens must own up to their action, but the illegal alien just walks away to buy another vehicle? I don't think this is something your program should be promoting. Responsible journalism would have explored, say, the link between illegal immigration, driving and the rising number of hit and run accidents — not this sob story about poor "undocumented immigrants."

Tim Aaronson, El Cerrito, CA

I recently watched a segment on "undocumented immigrants" cars being towed. Like most Californians, I do not support people coming to this country illegally. A driver's license is a basic identity document. However, the program was a biased, Gilbert Cedillo tirade, not a fact laden report of statistics on the harm these drivers have caused. Facts please.

C. Joyal, San Jose, CA

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