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.)
Those forced to wait a month dare not dawdle, however. In a Kafkaesque twist, car owners then have only 15 days to pay up; 45 days after impoundment, all remaining cars go to auction. Every Friday at 10:00 a.m., on Barham Drive in Escondido, RoadOne Auto Auction, which also claims to be the county’s largest towing service, brings in the vocal talents of auctioneer Joe Bradley and company to liquidate the vehicular booty.
Issues of personal liberty and fairness aside, and notwithstanding the public safety rationale proffered by checkpoint proponents and enforcers, other objections have surfaced. Specifically, questions have been raised about how the impound spoils have been accounted for and spent by the City of Escondido. Leiendecker doesn’t know what Escondido — whose official motto is “City of Choice” — does with its windfall. She muses, “Escondido City salaries, pension plans…perks like Christmas parties?”
She’s dead sure, though, that something’s rotten in North County, opining that Escondido’s alleged financial improprieties can be traced to the City’s violation of what she terms “strict federal guidelines.” The guidelines to which she refers are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations, a body of administrative law consisting of rules and regulations promulgated under the rubric of federal statutes. In addition to citing Title 41 of the regulations, she also points to the California Office of Traffic Safety’s grant application forms and manuals; in short, Leiendecker claims that the City of Escondido has violated California and federal law, both of which mandate that the funds must be segregated from other funds and profits used only for the grant-funded program itself.
City-council members, including Sam Abed and Marie Waldron, are on record as not only supporting the enterprise but also suggesting ways to supersize revenues. As for the Escondido Police Department, it weighed in a while back with a 16-page analysis that concluded that the City could make up to $2.4 million a year, up from the current (estimated) $700,000.
In an effort to clarify Escondido’s handling of the grant funds and profits derived from the checkpoint impounds, I contacted the mayor’s office, which handed off my inquiry to Lieutenant Craig Carter of the Escondido Police Department, who was unavailable for comment. I also placed a call to Michael McGuinness, Escondido’s assistant city attorney, who stated that funding issues are strictly the province of the police department. McGuinness, who defended the checkpoints as an incentive for unlicensed and/or uninsured motorists to “get their act together,” maintained that citizens opposed to the seizures should “take it up with the [California State] Legislature.” “We’re just enforcing the law.” However, McGuinness had no answer when I asked if there was anything requiring Escondido to operate the checkpoints.
When asked to comment on allegations that the checkpoints are more about municipal revenue than motoring safety, McGuinness denied any knowledge of the city council’s on-record discussions of the matter. He also disputed the notion that Escondido rakes in profits from its weekend tow parties. “I wouldn’t use the term ‘profit’ with a municipality.” When I suggested the alternative term, “net revenue,” he demurred again. “I won’t agree to adopt ‘net revenue’ either.”
Those who view the police checkpoints in a different light aren’t getting any help from the courts, however. On June 30, the California Court of Appeal (reviewing a case in which a man’s car was seized after he was snared at a checkpoint with a suspended license) rebuffed the latest constitutional challenge to vehicle seizures and impoundments. Notwithstanding the latest judicial imprimatur of Escondido’s cash cow, Jenifer Leiendecker is adamant. “It’s extortion, and local residents don’t even get a cut of the action.”■