Cities Begin Abusing Checkpoints for Revenue

The San Diego Union-Tribune recently published this staff editorial pointing out some how some cities are setting up random checkpoints in order to impound vehicles and sell them for city revenue. 

Never underestimate just how creative municipal governments can be when it comes to finding new ways to generate revenue. And, as you might imagine, they tend to get even more enterprising during a time of severe budget cuts. Given all that, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that many local governments in California are using a new tool to help fill their coffers: the impoundments of vehicles at random police checkpoints.

Say it isn’t so. According to a recent series in The New York Times, these kinds of operations have become increasingly profitable and now exist, more often, to seize cars from unlicensed motorists than to catch drunken drivers.

Vehicle checkpoints, you may recall, were originally meant to keep drunken drivers off the road and keep the rest of us safe. State law specifically prohibits law enforcement officers from stopping a motorist simply to verify that he or she has a driver’s license. And because the DUI checkpoints were generally done randomly, drivers wouldn’t be singled out because of their age, race, ethnicity, gender or some other physical characteristic. It was a perfectly reasonable public safety measure. Who could be against something like that?

We have supported sobriety checkpoints. What we’ve opposed are unfair policies such as the one in Escondido, CA where, under the initial pretense of checking for hit-and-run suspects, officials adopted a policy that many critics believed was a way to get around state law and to target undocumented immigrants. Under the Escondido program, the vehicle of an unlicensed driver is impounded for a full 30 days, with storage fees running as high as $1,380. Unclaimed cars are sold by the towing companies. Opponents say the policy violates the state Vehicle Code, and they have filed suit against it.

This isn’t just happening in Escondido. The Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that, in 2009, impoundments at checkpoints across the state generated an estimated $40 million in towing fees and police fines. To give you an idea of just how insidious these schemes are, cities often divide the revenue with towing companies. And while authorities insist that these checkpoints are colorblind, the article notes that cities where Hispanics make up a majority of the population are seizing cars at three times the rate of cities with smaller minority populations. Then there is the cost to taxpayers, which last year included as much as $30 million in overtime for police officers to monitor vehicle checkpoints.

Follow the money. Under the current system, city governments, police departments, rank-and-file officers (often getting paid overtime to staff the checkpoints), and towing companies are all enjoying a windfall from vehicle impoundments while average taxpayers and the most vulnerable members of society pick up the tab. This is a perversion of the checkpoint concept. It’s time for state lawmakers to rein in vehicle checkpoints and stop this abuse.

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