CA Sobriety Checkpoints Snare Illegals, Pad Tow Companies?

February 15, 2010

In California, sobriety checkpoints intended to stop drunk drivers are far more often cracking down on unlicensed drivers and particularly illegal immigrants—leading many to wonder about the legality of the checkpoints themselves, and their placement.

Sobriety checkpoints are big income generators in California, and the officials have called 2010 "the year of the checkpoint."

According to research done through the University of California, Berkeley, vehicle impoundments alone at sobriety checkpoints generated about $40 million in revenue, though towing fees and police fines, the New York Times reports.

The figures aren't as crazy as they seem when you factor in that over the past fiscal year $30 million will have been paid out in overtime to officers working those checkpoints and crackdowns. That goes without adding up administration and court costs.

The tow companies are the ones that benefit most from the practice. About two thirds of the vehicles impounded are never claimed and get sold, with the proceeds mostly going to them.

Towing companies or municipalities can hold the vehicles for up to 30 days, with fines and "storage fees" (not a surprise for anyone who's ever seen a vehicle towed for street cleaning or whatnot) running up to $4,000, the Times reports, while drunk drivers can typically get their vehicle back the next business day with less hassle.

There's no question that sobriety checkpoints reduce crashes. For instance, a 1995 study of a Tennessee program found that fatal crashes fell 20 percent during a 21-month enforcement period. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, license-related impoundments have also resulted in a reduction in both crashes and repeat offenders.

Hit-and-run drivers are often unlicensed, disproportionately contributing to higher insurance costs for properly licensed motorists.

'How Drunk Am I?' iPhone app

'How Drunk Am I?' iPhone app

For fiscal year 2009, about 24,000 vehicles were seized at sobriety checkpoints, mainly from unlicensed drivers. Two years earlier, only 15,700 were seized. And overall, in some areas, there are nearly 40 impoundments for every DUI.

The NYT points out that there are conflicting federal court rulings on whether the impoundments for drivers lacking a license are legal. San Francisco recently changed its policy to allow illegal drivers 20 minutes to find a legal driver for their vehicle.

The implementation and constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints does remain very different on a state-by-state basis; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has this useful guide on where they're allowed.

So if checkpoints more often catch unlicensed drivers than drunk drivers, it this a good use of limited public funds—and is the practice itself legal? Let us know what you think.

[New York Times]

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