Police drunk-driving checkpoints are big business. Just ask the City of Escondido, which has been racking up profits courtesy of federal grants and an aggressive vehicle-impound regime instituted by the Escondido Police Department with the eager assistance of four local towing companies. Although the checkpoints have proliferated in Escondido since 2004, recent months have seen an upsurge in criticism, spearheaded by Escondido resident Jenifer Leiendecker.
Carried out at the behest of the Escondido City Council and local politicians, the program is operated by the Escondido Police Department in conjunction with the North County Law Enforcement Traffic Safety Council and the ubiquitous Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Like other police-run stop-and-seize actions around the state, Escondido’s checkpoints are funded by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants. These federal grants are channeled to the California Office of Traffic Safety, which then disburses the money to municipalities such as Escondido. Leiendecker contends that even in the context of the wide discretion under which it has operated the checkpoint program, the City of Escondido has failed, either intentionally or via neglect, to adhere to California and federal law in handling its grant funds.
Leiendecker, a self-described housewife, says she’d been aware of the local checkpoints for a number of years. But her interest turned to anger and revulsion in January when she witnessed firsthand just what goes on when the long arm of the law conducts a sobriety checkpoint. “I’d been curious about [the checkpoints], and it so happened that I was out walking my dog near my home. At the corner of Ash and El Norte, I saw the police pull over an old clunker. A family had gotten out of the car — a man, a woman, and their daughter, who looked about ten. They had a look of shock on their faces. The mom was hyperventilating, and she fell to the ground as her daughter watched.”
Soon after her first taste of justice, Escondido-style (to be clear, many cities in California employ similar tactics), Leiendecker sought out another checkpoint in February, this one near the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Fig Street, not far from Highway 78. “It was 6:00 on a Friday night. I guess the cops were trying to impound the cars of people driving home from work. I brought a [still] camera to record how many people it takes to make zero DUI arrests.” The next time — a checkpoint west of I-15 — she brought along a friend, Noel Steiner, who wielded a video camera less than 50 feet from the action. “I saw people putting their belongings into a box. A police officer was kneeling down, trying to sweet-talk a little girl, maybe four years old. It was disgusting. Ordinarily, it might seem like a nice community-relations sort of thing to do, but here the cops were taking away the family’s car. I watched the family start to walk home in shorts and flip-flops. It was a cold night.”
Putting aside constitutional questions inherent to any random roadside police stop — i.e., niceties such as Fourth Amendment reasonable-suspicion requirements — it seems that most of the cars impounded by the City of Escondido aren’t even seized from suspected inebriates. Apparently, neither the .08 blood-alcohol threshold (as measured via on-site Breathalyzer) nor the wildly subjective field sobriety test nets Escondido enough impounds to satisfy its fiscal appetite. So the Escondido Police Department has cast a wider net, one that results in cars being taken on a variety of pretexts, including expired registrations and licenses. After being hooked up to the back of a tow truck, the cars are then impounded — locked tight behind barbed-wire fences. To retrieve them, owners must pay as much as $3000 ransom, which flows to the tow companies and to the City of Escondido.
I asked Leiendecker about results. Has the Escondido Police Department rid its streets of booze-sodden motorists? Or is the checkpoint program just another government shakedown, imposed under the guise of enhancing public safety? She directed me to the Escondido Police Department’s website, which, the day after each checkpoint, sets out the haul in the form of a news release. The results are telling: during the first half of 2010 (through July 2), the Escondido gendarmes conducted 11 checkpoints, screening about 14,000 drivers; although 374 cars were impounded, there were only 32 arrests of those suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or other intoxicants. (The vast majority of “impound” motorists were selected due to license or registration infractions.)
For the department’s perspective, I spoke with Lieutenant Tom Albergo, who defended the non-DUI impounds by noting that many of the driver’s-license violations involve those who’ve never been issued licenses. “They’re hazards because they haven’t demonstrated proficiency.” When I asked Albergo about the cost-benefit aspect of vehicle impounds, he said, “Absolutely, they’re worth it. Looking at it from the humanistic point of view, of course we have empathy for the drivers. We understand why they do it, but we still have to enforce the law. That doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.”
Whether or not impounding a car is an unpleasant chore, no one disagrees that the City of Escondido and its towing partners have found a profit center in the business of hauling away cars. Each contracted towing company pays Escondido $100,000 per year. In turn, each company gets to handle a quarter of the lucrative impound cases. And, of course, there are the fees. The Escondido Police Department’s website states that to “defray costs” it must charge the owner of an impounded vehicle $180 for “processing.” The towing companies — Allied Gardens Towing, Al’s Towing, A-Z Metro Towing, and El Norte Towing — then tack on a $150 fee. But the markups have only just begun. There’s also an impound charge of $35 per day, payable to the cars’ “custodians.” Multiply that by 30 days — the soonest California law allows many categories of offenders to retrieve an impounded vehicle — and checkpoint selectees are usually out a minimum of $1380, not including lost income from missed work. (Ironically, motorists whose cars have been impounded during DUI arrests can claim them the next day.)