DUI checkpoints under question

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An LASD deputy questions a driver at a DUI checkpoint in 2013.

It’s been a busy few months for the Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department, which this weekend will conclude a countywide crackdown on drunk driving with DUI/ CLD (California Driver’s License) checkpoints across the Southland, including one in Malibu on Friday. 

The program, funded by federal dollars and dispersed through the state Office of Traffic and Safety, has enabled sheriffs to increase DUI arrests from 2012. But the majority of the arrests under the program have come not for drunk driving but for driving without a license. Critics say the program unfairly targets undocumented workers, especially when their cars are towed away as a result. 

“It’s not only an issue of fairness, but what we call predatory towing, which really preys on the most vulnerable families in our community,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, a Latino community advocacy group. 

“It’s something that not only makes no sense, but is extremely unfair to working families.” 

Since May 24, 48 drivers have been arrested for unlicensed driving at DUI/CLD checkpoints in Malibu. 

During the same period, only eight drivers have been arrested at checkpoints for driving under the influence or driving in possession of narcotics or open containers of alcohol. 

The Los Angeles Times reported that a ticket for unlicensed driving can reach $600; legal fees to the Los Angeles County Court can reach $1,000. 

Drivers who are stopped at checkpoints for unlicensed driving are cited and released to appear in court at a later date, said Det. David Huelson of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station. 

“They’d only be hard-booked if they were wanted on a warrant for another arrest,” he said. 

The sheriff ’s department makes a distinction between cars that are impounded and those that are “stored.” 

Cars are only impounded— at the sheriff ’s department’s expense—if there is evidence the owner has committed a crime, Huelson said. Otherwise cars are “stored” at a tow yard, at the owner’s expense. 

“We’ll give [unlicensed and suspended drivers] the opportunity to call somebody to pick up their car that has a valid driver’s license until we leave the area,” Huelson said. “We don’t generally impound them. We only impound cars if there is evidence of a crime.” 

Sheriffs at checkpoints follow section 2814.2 of the California Vehicle Code, which states that peace officers hold an unlicensed driver’s car at the scene of the checkpoint. If the driver can contact someone to come and pick up his or her car, then the car is released to that person. 

If the driver cannot find someone to pick up his or her car by the end of the checkpoint, then the car is stored for up to 30 days, Huelson said. 

After a 30-day period, cars that are not taken from storage are auctioned off, with money going to the tow company to pay the storage fee. 

Additional profit goes to the DMV. 

Some people are concerned that LASD checkpoints end up targeting undocumented workers, who are especially vulnerable. 

In addition to the cost of the citation, assessment fees by the Los Angeles County court can stack up. 

“We’re talking about fines of up to $1,300, and that’s just the legal fines,” Carmona said. 

Storage fees at tow yards can reach up to $50 a day, which means a car can accrue up to $1,500 in storage fees alone, Carmona said. 

“You’re talking about families that live in poverty, well within poverty level,” he said. “$3,000 that could represent up to 15 or 20 percent of a person’s annual income.” 

Malibu Towing, Inc., the company the LASD contracts to tow vehicles in Malibu, charges $34 a day for storage. 

The $3,000 figure does not include wages lost from not being able to drive to work, Carmona said.

“This has to deal with state policy,” he said. “We’ve made good progress, particularly in the city of Los Angeles, and we’ve expanded our scope to the county as well.” 

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said he’s “never heard a coherent defense of the current California policy.” 

“There are some states that have woken up and smelled the coffee and started issuing licenses to undocumented workers,” he said. “Since we don’t actually expect 11 million irregular immigrants to self-deport, we ought to be working to regularize their lives as much as possible.” 

One of the benefits of granting undocumented workers drivers’ licenses would be insuring them, Kleiman said. 

Another benefit would be that, if someone was stopped at a checkpoint for not having a license, it would be a driver who never bothered to apply for a license or a driver who had it legally revoked, he added.