Checkpoint Moolah

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.)

Comments

I didn't read anything factual...it sounds like I hate a cop month to me. Show me so hard evidence. Remember the first rule of journalism..."get your facts right"

Is it really that hard to understand? If you don't want you're vehicle to be impounded then follow some simple laws:

  1. Have a valid drivers license.
  2. Have a current vehicle registration.
  3. Don't drive under the influence of a controlled substance.

If you are not able to follow the above laws, then don't drive. You won't get hassled, you won't have to walk home, and you'll have lost five minutes of your day while EPD enforces the laws that make our streets safer to drive on.

I've gone through dozens of checkpoints and have never had an issue. I'm polite to the officers, I follow the laws, and I move on.

Would the mother have passed out at the thought of her vehicle being impounded if she or the driver of her vehicle were following the laws? No. Would the sad little children have walked home if their driver were following the law? No. Would there be a story here if the illegal drivers followed the law? No.

If you or your vehicle fails to meet the requirements of driving legally on the road, then you should not be on the road. If you choose to violate one or more laws then you take the inherent risk in being punished for being illegally on the road. I think repeat offenders should have any chance at having a license denied personally.

It's sad that I have to carry extra insurance to cover uninsured motorist. I hope that we devote more time to removing illegal drivers from our streets.

I was at the DMV a few months ago and witnessed the saga of one of the victims of the Escondito Police. The young man in front of me was visiting from out of state and had been driving through the area the night before. He had chosen to be a good Samaritan and offered to be the designated driver for a few folks who had indulged at a party he attended. Being a good citizen, and knowing that his vehicle was registered and insured, and that he had not had a drop of liquor to drink, he approached the check point without apprehension.

Obviously, he passed the DWI screening, but he had neglected to have the most current copy of his insurance in his glove box so the policeman told him that he was confiscating his vehicle. The young man's world collapsed around him as he futilely pleaded that insurance was definitely in force, to which the officer heartlessly said, "This vehicle is mine." The young man was suddenly out of a vehicle late at night and hundreds of miles from home.

I was in line with the young man for a few hours and helped him reach his insurance company who confirmed that insurance was in force, but that there had been a beauracratic breakdown at their end and the active coverage data had not been properly sent to the DMV. The DMV then insisted that only a live fax of the data would do, as they admitted that their fax lines were often tied up.

He is a start-up entrepeneur who is building electric powered bicycles that are styled like choppers. This catastrophic disruption not only forced him to miss a televised interview scheduled in LA that morning, but the $1,000+ being demanded by the combined weight of the Escondito Police, the Towing Company & the DMV (to confirm what was already true) exceeded his liquid resources and limited acceptable forms of payment almost made him leave the DMV empty handed, further condemning him to additional storage charges and missed business opportunities. The woman behind the DMV counter was sympathetic, as she confirmed the insurance was in force, but she would not accept a credit card, the only resource the young man had left.

The starkness of this injustice compelled me, a complete stranger, to pay the DMV bill so that he could have a prayer of getting back on the road and bring this nightmare to an end. Apparently, he was able to get back to the impound lot minutes before it closed.

I realize that all governmental entities are under pressure to maximize their revenue as millions of Americans are also forced to make hard economic choices in this contracted economy, but it is hard to see how these Draconian measures serve the overall public good. Further, these punitive assaults could easily push people on the economic brink over the edge. Then, us taxpayers could pay many times Escondido's bounty in unemployment or other public assistance that are then required.

Lance, I highly recommend that you send this exact comment to the "Letters" section of the Reader, it deserves to be read in the hard copy as well.

If you or your vehicle fails to meet the requirements of driving legally on the road, then you should not be on the road. If you choose to violate one or more laws then you take the inherent risk in being punished for being illegally on the road.

By vcrez

You may be punished if CONVICTED, but the issue of towing a car BEFORE a trial on any allegation is very clear, if the car is registered and has insurance and is not a threat to public safety-such as being pulled over and parked in a legal street parking space-then the police have no legal right to tow or impound it, if they do then they get sued and there goes a few hundred thousand dollars of taxpayer $$$ down the drain due to a GED educated cop being an idiot.

Please know the law before popping off junior.

I was at the DMV a few months ago and witnessed the saga of one of the victims of the Escondito Police. The young man in front of me was visiting from out of state and had been driving through the area the night before.

In CA all vehicles need insurance to be registered, it is sent both electronically and by USPS to DMV by the insuance provider-it can be checked just as easily as the drivers license by the police thru the state computer databases.

Now, the problem here is you said your friend was from out of state-but went to DMV to fix this mess. Out of state vehicles need only conform to the state in which they are registered in, so if you're from MI and they don't require proof of insurance then you need not carry proof when driving in CA. Same with all vehicle issues-if MI says you do not need a front license plate (which they don't) then CA law enforcement cannot enforce the CA law that mandates you do need one.

It is astonishing that people just blindly support this kind of gross mistreatment by the EPD. Whatever happened to issuing tickets for violations? Impounding cars on the spot seems a bit draconian.

Why are people so willing to give up their rights? Imagine if you forgot your "papers" (say your new insurance card just came in and you left it in your gym bag in your gym locker).... Would you expect to be treated like this? Give me a break.

Re #6: This is entirely correct, I had family from Oklahoma once who were pulled over in California for not having a front plate, same-same. You can't mount one if they don't give you one.

This is just another way for the City to make big money from it's citizens!

I am NOT commenting on ticketing DUI (or driving without a license) operators but rather on the taking of ones vehicle for "paper work" infractions like the one mentioned above...

SURE, issue a ticket when it is warranted; but taking someones vehicle and having that cost them $1000+ dollars AFTER waiting 30 days is a RIP OFF of the highest order by those "sworn" to protect US, the very same folks that are now demanding that we must pay additional taxes to support them in their retirement.

What's wrong with that picture?

Reply to #3 Kudos to you for being "Real" and I trust you received your money back!

It's a sad State of current affairs, that "We" are all responsible for our Government's actions, yet we often are appalled by the way our Government acts!

Two words; driving privilege.

Operating automobiles on public roadways is not a right.

Obey the law, follow the rules of the road, possess a valid driver's license and carry liability insurance. You won't have any problems it's just that simple. Over the years tens of thousands of cars and drivers pass though these checkpoints without any problems whatsoever.

The belief that you're entitled to do as you please and other drivers who follow the law owe you something is as ridiculous as the premise of this story.

What the author inadvertently failed to mention is that the tow yard does not have to auction off your vehicle within that 15 days that you have to act on it after the 30-day hold. They can wait another 30, 60 or 90 days (depending on jurisdiction)!

So if someone just lost their $1500 vehicle the tow yard would probably rush to auction it off because there is no money in it for them. However, if your vehicle is a $10,000 or higher vehicle that you can't afford to retrieve out of hock -- the tow yard will likely wait longer so that the tow yard fees increase so that the tow company can take more money from the sale of your vehicle.

And the best part is that if your vehicle is auctioned off and it does not sell for what is "owed" then your license is held up at DMV until you pay the rest of the money "owed" -- but if your vehicle goes for more than what is "owed" that excess is folded back into the city's general fund.

Those who claim that people not driving with legal paperwork is reason enough to swipe that person's car is excellent obedience to a flawed system. I commend those who blindly go along. Unfortunately, in dealing with lower income families, all too often we see them struggling to make ends meet. Instead of a system that helps, we have a system that punishes. Those with enough disposable income are not bothered with the inconvenience whilst those without any disposable income are ruined.

To say yeah ruin the poor is sick. And it only puts the burden on society to pay the expense.

And a $180 processing fee that you have to pay the police in order for them to release your vehicle from the tow yard is outrageous! How much work does the Police Explorer really have to do behind the counter to print that piece of paper and release the tow yard hold?? It seems to me that the processing cost is created by the very fee that they claim pays for the processing to release one's vehicle.

Remember, this checkpoint is done to curtail driving under the influence. All this chatter about doing what is right and following the letter of the law is fabulous, except that the police don't follow the law themselves when they take the vehicle (as explained above by an in-the-know poster).

Sure, you absolutely should be driving with insurance and registration. But if you aren't truly able to afford that, does creating more of a debt help solve the situation? Maybe there is a hardship that prevented the payment or maybe there just wasn't enough money to go around this month and the insurance lapsed. I'm not saying that is acceptable behavior. What I am saying is that the police's behavior is UNACCEPTABLE.

If you can't afford to carry insurance, you're taking a risk. Never you mind how you're financially penalized by the insurance companies for trying to get insurance after a lapse, as they oftentimes charge exorbitant rates to reconnect you to the land of the legal driver.

Let's just say, it doesn't pay to be poor. Especially in San Diego County.

and a valid show show that ur insured

does anyone have any statistics on if these random stops for alcohol use and driving drunk have been a deterrent to drunk driving???

I am almost ashamed that I wasted several minutes reading this article. Apparently you don't need fact checking, a college background or people who know anything about which they speak. But then again, you Moss are working for a free magazine that promotes marijuana use every other page. So I will go easy - first your reliable witness is a housewife (nothing wrong with that my mother was one for most of my childhood)does she also possess a background in Grant writing and allocation? In her "investigation" did she bother to ask anyone for a copy of the grant specifics to ensure the money was misdirected, does she even know how to locate such information? Do you Moss? I love that you pulled out the big guns from drama camp to describe the expressive way in which unlicensed and drunk drivers react when in fact the police do their job and tow the family car. Maybe Mrs. Leiendecker can explain to little Billy why mommy is freaking out after driving her children around on a suspended license - because I guarantee that the first unlicensed driver that hits Leiendecker's car and her insurance rates sky rockets she will be beating down Escondido Police Department's door demanding justice. Leiendecker's right, police work should be free and let's terminate cops pensions after sacrificing their lives for truly remarkable citizens such as Leiendecker. Let's also abandon Christmas parties because they improve morale - in fact let's let Leiendecker run the show. What a ridiculous waste of time both of your efforts were.

It's all about the money. The problem is... the kind of people that want to be cops... shouldn't be. Think about it. Until we pay decent wages and raise the bar - this is what we have to deal with. It's not going to happen anytime soon -- if ever.

Spoken like someone who has never served his country or his community... Cops and military folks do their jobs for the greater good not the dollah' dollah' bills ya'll...

What an unfair, untruthful and biased article based on the rantings of a housewife. I have gone through numerous checkpoints over the years, and have never had a problem. It's o.k. that illegal immigrants cause accidents, drive with no licenses or insurance and nothing happens to them? They take their chances when they engage in illegal behavior. Chief Maher is a wonderful man who does a great job. For all of you who think lawbreakers should be able to do whatever they want to, be sure to buy no-fault insurance. That's what a lawyer told me to do when my car was smashed by an illegal immigrant and had money to pay for it.

At a rally to support the checkpoints last spring, the word going around was that DUIs have gone down by 31 percent since the checkpoints began. If I'm not mistaken, Chief Maher backed up that statistic when he spoke.

Seems that this blog has gotten "personal"! Let get back to what I believe is the "meat" of the issue:

SURE, issue a ticket when it is warranted; but taking someones vehicle and having that cost them $1000+ dollars AFTER waiting 30 days is a RIP OFF of the highest order by those "sworn" to protect US, the very same folks that are now demanding that we must pay additional taxes to support them in their retirement.

What's wrong with that picture?

Paperwork glitches resulting in enormous fees is just plain not fair...

What's next, paying a $250 "fee" for an expedited receipt , that is required for who knows what? Public Services should charge a "fair" amount for what they do and printing a copy of a single page document should not cost over $10 or we should put that "Service" up for public bid and then we would see those costs plummet and the private contractor would still "Rake It In"...

Fair is fair but being RIPPED OFF should be illegal, even if it is being done by our own "Government"...

The cops are going overboard Escondido. The 30 day min impound is ridiculous scam to gouge the public. I can understand impounding a car for a expired drivers license or DUI. Sure some people forget the proof of insurance at home and the cops will issue a ticket or you pay a fine when go to court.

Reply to #22

The 30 day impound is not in the Public's best interest, just the Police & City of Escondido's financial BE$T interest.

The Legislature intended to provide safer roads for California's motoring public be removing the vehicles driven by unlicensed, suspended, or revoked drivers for 30-days.

As the owner you are responsible for anyone who drives it. If a friend or relative who has a suspended license, or who does not have a valid license, drives it will still be impounded for 30-days.

The fact that you were not the driver at the time of impoundment does not qualify as an excuse.

Under California Vehicle Code Section 14604; you have a duty to assure the person driving the vehicle has a valid driver's license. This includes: your wife, son, daughter, friend or relative. If a person does not have license, you are responsible for towing and storage fees for the entire 30-day period.

The registered owner may request a storage hearing with 10-days of notification to determine if the vehicle is eligible to be released earlier than the mandatory 30-days; however, it is important to note that a hearing is not for the purpose of asking for leniency or stating excuses such as those listed above. The sole purpose of a hearing is if you intend to question the validity of the impound.

An impounded vehicle is eligible for early release to the registered owner ONLY under the following circumstances: • The impoundment of the vehicle was invalid • The vehicle was stolen • Vehicle is subject to bailment and is driven by an unlicensed employee of a business • When the license of the driver was suspended or revoked for an offense other than those specified in CVC 14602.6(f) • When the driver reinstates his or her driver's license or acquires a driver's license and proper insurance

IF YOU DON'T LIKE THE LAW GET THE LEGISLATURE TO CHANGE IT. Otherwise, like the tens of thousands of licensed drivers who have passed through checkpoints, obey the law.

Reply to #24 "IF YOU DON'T LIKE THE LAW GET THE LEGISLATURE TO CHANGE IT."

That is why I'm adding my thoughts to this blog; I'm interested in getting others to realize that are now many folks getting "Ripped Off" for "paper work" infractions, that have everything to do with MAKING HUGE PROFITS FOR TOWING COMPANIES and the City that shares in their "Take"...

In fact, folks should NOT have to carry ANY INSURANCE COVERAGE paperwork since the Police can easily determine if a vehicle and or Driver has insurance (VIA the internet) and if any one deserves a fine it would be their Insurance Company for not dong their job of informing the DMV of client coverage...

Just because a law is on the books does not mean it's RIGHT or enforced fairly to all... That to me, is what this particular blog is all about, not the legality of driving drunk or even un-insured.

I disagree with you characterization, Ripped Off. The legislature wrote the law with a specific method to motivate people to follow the law.

If they, unlicensed, uninsured, or intoxicated drivers chose not to comply, then the driving privileged, and the means of exercising said privileged, would be removed from the roadway for a minimum of 30 days. Of course, if you follow the rules of the road, purchase, at minimum liability insurance, then you won't run afoul.

In a representative form of government that what they do. Having a standard for whole, rather than a city by city willy nilly rules also makes sense.

Speaking of the legislature, they, as your representatives, have not drafted nor passed a law requiring the hundreds if not thousands of automobile insurance companies to keep track of or report to the state which cars do or do not have insurance. There is no way for law enforcement agencies to check as there is no centralized database. Oh here's a news flash too, people lie to cops about their insurance.

In response to HeadonStraight: Far be it from me to suggest that a "housewife" could possibly be able to research an issue or have the background or education to come to informed and legitimate conclusions based on actual evidence such as the grant application or the law itself. That would be unbelievable, indeed! It is absolutely amazing to me that "housewives" are even allowed to vote! What a travesty!

It seems that this "housewife" has done her homework. The City of Escondido appears to be violating the law, at least in the area of generating profit and not showing a public accounting of where the profit is going. Why is it that the City refuses to account for the use of the profits?

If the profits are not being returned to the program, the law has been broken and the City should be prosecuted. I am sure that HeadonStraight does not believe that breaking the law to catch others breaking the law is responsible government.

If the tow companies are so motivated that they are each willing to pay the City $100,000.00 for the contracts, these checkpoints are big business. If the City is interested in owning its own impound yard, it is surely profit motivated and should at least be investigated.

Finally, many "housewives" have advanced degrees, comprehensive work experience, etc. I point to the First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Obama, as an example. Last time I checked, she is currently "just a housewife" holding no paid position. To suggest that she or others like her hold opinions that have little value is simply shortsighted and possibly misogynistic.

Oh yeh, someone said it finally, crap I noticed long ago but thought I was the crazy one, thank you... thank you thank you, they are doing this to make $$$ I have seen more than once women with kids call escondido police for help from abusive tweaker husbands, the police are so screwed they end up putting the woman and kids on the street then just walk away laughing and talking amongst themselves, one lady was saying what do you want me to do with my kids? sleep in the car, they just laughed and said sorry ma'am but you called us for help, we cant do anything, if your scared you just leave. walked away and left her standing there confused... with her kids... do not call for help if you live in Escondido, because you will get none, all you will get is ridicule and left on your own to deal with whatever... and if you do call, you may end up being the one in deeper shit than what you originally called about...

All it will take is for one smart person or lawyer to come around and sue these f-ers, One will make a change and beleive me, that one is almost here... still wont change their shi//y attitudes thoough, as though we all owe them a living... they get more fun out of all meeting up at a certain adress than they do about taking care of the situation, 10 or 15 of them will show up, all standing around telling jokes and making fun of the people involved, its always like a comedy show... get a freaking life escondido cops. we already know you are like Laurel and Hardy, earn some real respect by doing your job...

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