The sanction of California’s newest law regarding the impounding of vehicles at sobriety checkpoints has made an impression on both civilians and law enforcement.

Effective Jan.1, the police are no longer able to tow a vehicle at a DUI (driving under the influence) checkpoint if the driver’s only offense is that he or she is unlicensed (no license or license is invalid – suspended, revoked or expired).

This law was endorsed by California state Sen. Gil Cedillo, D- Los Angeles, an avid supporter of immigration rights; and according to reports, it was primarily because DUI checkpoints inadvertently yet apparently set up traps for unlicensed drivers, where illegal immigrants seemed to be primary targets, and the towing of vehicles resulted in a relatively generous amount of income for cities.

“People are still going to be stopped for driving without a license at a checkpoint and show up in court and answer why they are driving a car. Just for the checkpoint, we can’t take the car,” said Sgt. Randy Latimer of the Oxnard Police Department.

“However, at the end of the checkpoint, if no one (registered owner or licensed driver) picks it up, we will tow it. Also, on the street, if an officer stops an unlicensed driver, the car will be impounded for 30 days,” he added.

Collectivo Todo Poder al Pueblo (Power to the People Collective) is an Oxnard-based organization that is dedicated to migrant justice in Ventura County, and actively protests at checkpoints.

“Checkpoints were traps and were being set up in heavily residential areas to apprehend citizens who lack papers. If you look at numbers of DUI suspects, they were very low, and they were apprehending dozens of unlicensed drivers and holding their cars for ransom,” said Elliott Gabriel, a spokesperson for Todo Poder.

“The tow truck companies are making money and the police are paid overtime by grants. It’s a racket benefiting at the expense of the most vulnerable section of the community,” Gabriel said.

With a 30-day impound, a driver could pay more than $1,000 in fines and fees to reclaim a vehicle.

In Camarillo, of the 172 vehicles impounded in 2011, 42.4 percent (73 vehicles) were not claimed.

 

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Slow night at a sobriety and license checkpoint on Channel Islands and M Street in Oxnard on Jan. 28.

A Ventura County officer explained that the majority of cars are not retrieved after 30 days, because the driver either still has no license or has one that is invalid. This leads to the transfer of vehicles to towing companies for auction.

Jose (who wished to have his true identity withheld), an illegal immigrant driver in favor of the new law, has had his car impounded and has been deported once back to Mexico.

While driving home at night in late 2010, he was pulled over after stopping at a traffic light. “The police followed me with their lights on from the light to when I parked and came and asked if I’m OK,” he said.

Jose was then asked for his license and registration, to which he admitted he did not have either.

“I said I have no license, they said it’s against the law.”

He explained that, after revealing he had no license, he was immediately asked if he had been drinking, and he admitted having had a couple of beers earlier. Jose was asked to step out of the car and perform field sobriety tests (FSTs).

“I did a lot of walking and counting and it take so long,” he recalled. “Then I did the breathing test and I got 0.08. I thought 0.08 was the legal limit.”

Jose was subject to more questions about his alcohol intake and his whereabouts that night and eventually was taken to the police station under suspicion of DUI. Once at the station, he explained, he submitted to a breathalyzer, this time resulting in a 0.09 blood alcohol level, an increase from his original 0.08 percent.

According to Jose, after his second breathalyzer, the officer told him, “0.09 is DUI. You gotta obey the law. You’re under arrest.”

Jose remembered his confusion. “I did the test the first time and I wasn’t 0.09 before, but they don’t care. So I went to jail.”

Jose’s car was impounded, costing him more than $1,500. Like law enforcement, impound lots are not friendly, in his opinion.

“The people at the impound say they don’t have anyone who speaks Spanish when you call. This is Oxnard!” Jose said.

 

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One of several Todo Poder advocates during a “checkpoint action” to warn motorists.

One of his friends, also an illegal immigrant, recently had a bad experience, Jose said. After being in a minor car accident, the friend admitted his illegal status (no license) to the California Highway Patrol officer on site, and eventually, all involved persons were allowed to leave; but once in his vehicle, the CHP officer approached and asked for license and registration – with prior knowledge of the answer. With nothing to produce, the vehicle was towed.

“The police will always find a way to tow your car,” Jose said. “Also, at the impound, people stole things from my friend’s car. I think it’s really mean, taking things from your car.”

After his DUI arrest in 2010, Jose was deported back to Mexico and then came back to the states.
“I have my family here. I’m trying to make money and I don’t want to go back to Mexico. I don’t want to break my family,” he explained.

Jose works six days a week, at least 10 to 12 hours a day. “People think we (illegal immigrants) are just here getting babies and going to welfare, but that’s not true. We have to work all those hours. People on welfare don’t do that.”

He plans to continue working and supporting his family, and hopes not to have any more encounters with law enforcement.

“Sometimes, not very much, you can get a nice police officer, but most of the time, they have bad moods. How they talk to you and treat you like animals. I haven’t killed nobody, hurt nobody, they can’t even look you in the eye. The law, it’s easier on American citizens, but if you’re illegal, they wait for you, impound your car and make some money,” stated Jose.

Jose is grateful for the new checkpoint law. Although it only applies at checkpoints, he is still happy because, before this year, he believed that checkpoints were a place for law enforcement to target unlicensed drivers.

“Now I will be more comfortable to go through a checkpoint, and if they try to take my car just because I don’t have a license, I will say, ‘Sorry, you can’t take my car, sir!’ ” he said with enthusiasm.

Aside from a profit in towing, there has also been controversy over the possibility that illegal immigrants, like Jose, have been targeted in the DUI checkpoint process — an immigration hunt rather than sobriety enforcement.

“The purpose of checkpoints is mainly for public information and a deterrent for drunk driving,” said Latimer. He clarified that the license and DUI check are both important safety parts of a checkpoint, and are not specifically used to catch unlicensed drivers.

Senior Officer Jaime Brown, currently in the traffic division of the Oxnard Police Department and a 14-year law enforcement veteran, explained, “We are just checking all the drivers to make sure they have proper licenses and make sure they’re not drinking and driving.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently credited California’s record-breaking decreased DUI-related incidents to increased checkpoint activity throughout the state.

 

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An unlicensed driver being questioned by two members of the Oxnard Police Department; one served as a translator.

The accusation of using checkpoints to target unlicensed and, specifically, illegal immigrants (drivers) is disputed by law enforcement throughout Ventura County, with Brown simply responding, “Absolutely not true.”

“We look at solely collision and DUI stats to find where we will set up a DUI checkpoint. We never ever look at the area of town that we will find most unlicensed drivers. Never does it come in that we look at demographic,” clarified Latimer.

Oxnard is the largest city in Ventura County, with higher rates of DUI-related incidents as well as an estimated greater population of illegal immigrants and drivers compared to other cities in the county.

Not only do activists question the purpose of checkpoints, but also how local law enforcement presents its intentions, and even the signs at the checkpoint.

“The police say they want to warn people that there are checkpoints ahead, but they set up in very dim streets like Ventura Road and Channel Islands Boulevard, and the warning signs they put up are in English in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community,” Gabriel said. “By the time people see the signs, they are too far in to turn around.”

At checkpoints, law enforcement personnel give drivers advance notice with the “checkpoint ahead” warning signs, which are located near a “way out,” a courtesy that Brown said is not mandatory.

Todo Poder often protests at checkpoints, in what it calls “checkpoint action.” In these protests, it sets up near a DUI checkpoint, with flashing lights and bright orange lights and warning signs (some in Spanish) about what lies ahead.

The group has two goals: to monitor the checkpoint and police actions, making sure they do not violate anyone’s rights, and to warn drivers that there is a checkpoint in case they are unlicensed.

According to Gabriel, “The response we got from the community was overwhelmingly positive. People brought us coffee, honked their horns ….”

The Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), which annually funds Oxnard and Ventura DUI-related programs, recently released a report detailing the state’s checkpoint results.

In 2011, there were 2,089 checkpoints conducted in California, and of the 20,154 drivers who performed FSTs, 29.59 percent (5,964) were arrested for drunk driving while 2.35 percent (474) were arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. It does not state how many were unlicensed.

“Checkpoints, saturation patrols, they’re all tools we use to make the streets safer and the fact that we’ve seen reductions, I know that we’re doing the right thing and keep people from driving without licenses,” said Latimer.

According to AAA’s 2008 follow-up research study to its previous #Unlicensed to Kill# report, unlicensed drivers are still involved in one of every five fatal crashes.

This nationwide study consisted of statistical averages from 2001 to 2005, concluding that, yearly, 8,030 unlicensed drivers were involved in 19.9 percent (7,679) of all fatal crashes, resulting in 20.5 percent (8,801) of all deaths involving vehicle crashes.

No statistics were available from Ventura County regarding unlicensed driver collisions but Brown estimated that five out of 10 traffic collisions in Oxnard were caused by unlicensed drivers.

“Proper training is important for traffic safety,” added Latimer.

Advocates for unlicensed illegal immigrant drivers agree, but not entirely.

“The safety factor is a problem. However, we feel that undocumented residents have no other recourse but to drive and should not have to dwell in this legal gray area. We feel that they should gain access to drive and that would solve a lot of the problem,” explained Gabriel.

Regardless of the fact that the new law only applies to checkpoints, it clearly has made an impact on both law enforcement and those opposed to checkpoints.

“(The new law) just makes it harder when unlicensed drivers have access to a car. I see the people’s side but at the same time, it’s like the law is letting us down a little bit by not letting us take the car away. In California, the law states, when you don’t have a driver’s license, you can’t drive,” said Sr. Officer Brown.

Gabriel said he believes it is one step closer to their goal.

“This law represents a partial victory for migrant justice, because now DUI checkpoints are getting back on track rather than focusing on unlicensed drivers,” he said. “It’s a partial victory because our main goal is to see undocumented residents gain a driver’s license and be subject to tests like everyone else.”