New Law Governing California Sobriety Checkpoints

As of the first day of 2012, California police officers will no longer be allowed to impound the cars of drivers who cannot produce a license after being stopped at sobriety checkpoints. Critics of this impound practice have said it targets illegal immigrants, who are not allowed to obtain drivers licenses in the Golden State.

In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration funded more than 2,500 sobriety checkpoints throughout California, and the state registered a historically low number of drunk driving-related deaths that year, according to The Associated Press. Despite this seeming success, the checkpoint program came under fire, as some said it was an unscrupulous way for impound companies and municipalities to raise money, at the expense of undocumented residents.

The AP described how the checkpoint system worked in the town of Escondido, where 3,200 cars have been impounded since 2006. Six towing companies pay $75,000 apiece to the city government to take turns towing the vehicles impounded at checkpoints, and the companies keep the impound fees and, in the event the car remains unclaimed, the proceeds of the vehicle auction.

“It was kind of like letting them steal cars,” Olga Diaz, an Escondido City Council member, told the AP.

Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher told the source the checkpoints are meant to keep drunk and unlicensed drivers off the streets, and are not designed to be an immigration enforcement mechanism. But immigration rights groups have criticized the Escondido police department, which has engaged four agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The ICE agents maintain offices at police headquarters to determine the citizenship status of unlicensed drivers arrested at checkpoints.

Gil Cedillo is the Democratic assemblyman who sponsored the bill to prohibit police from impounding cars if the driver’s only offense is not producing a license. NBC Los Angeles quoted Cedillo as saying, “We cannot be diverting resources that are supposed to be focused on drunk drivers and using those resources to cherry pick.”

The news source also quoted Don Rosenberg, whose 25-year-old son was killed by an unlicensed driver in 2010.

“They’ve now given unlicensed drivers permission to keep driving and they’re going to kill people,” Rosenberg told the source.

New Mexico, Utah and Washington are the only states that grant licenses to undocumented immigrants.