Checkpoint crashers help motorists keep their property
Pro-immigrant advocates rallied yesterday at Florence Avenue and Main Street to warn drivers of a police sobriety and driver’s license checkpoint.
Standing down the street from the checkpoint, members of the Southern California Immigration Coalition, or SCIC, held placards warning motorists of the police stop. Their signs read “checkpoint” in both English and Spanish.
“We are here to alert and warn drivers,” said SCIC organizer Jubilee Shine. “If people are caught who don’t have a license, for whatever reason, their cars will be impounded for a minimum of 30 days. If the people can’t pay the impound fee, then the city will auction off the car and keep the revenue.”
The Los Angeles Police Department says the checkpoints are proven to reduce automobile fatalities. However, critics say police are abusing the stops to generate millions of dollars in revenue through impounding autos owned by unlicensed drivers.
Community organizations say the LAPD targets poor and working class communities – some of whom are undocumented – who are often unable to pay the impound fees that can cost up to $2,000 or more.
LAPD Lieutenant Manuel Romeral said the department bases its checkpoints locations off of statistical information. Streets and intersections that have high rates of accidents caused by drunk drivers get checkpoints, he said.
“We are not out here to target any specific community or people,” said Romeral. “We do six of these a month and we spread them out. We can’t keep doing them in one location because that becomes problematic. People can then argue that we are targeting that one community.”
Shine doesn’t share this feeling, saying that the police are targeting communities that are least likely to pay the fees associated with impounds.
“If they were concerned about really focusing on drunk driving, they would be setting these up next to UCLA or on Sunset Boulevard,” he said.
Last year, Los Angeles led the state in vehicle impounds at 1,008, according to LA Weekly. It is estimated that two-thirds of those impounds were illegal immigrants. After pressure from immigrant rights groups, such as SCIC, the LAPD revised its policies in March. Now, after a stop, any licensed driver may be contacted and allowed to pick up the automobile belonging to the unlicensed driver.
Romeral said that since the LAPD revised its impoundment policy, they are seizing less vehicles.
“In some areas where we worked, it was not uncommon for us to get 30 to 40 impounds,” he said. “Now we average 4 or 5, because we are giving the one’s who are unlicensed an opportunity to get someone to come down and drive the vehicle.”
Shine refers to the checkpoints and seizing people’s property as a “form of terrorism.”
“It destabilizes a community,” he said. “Working people are dependent upon their vehicles for everything they need in their lives and to suddenly take that from them doesn’t contribute anything to the community.”
According to the National Lawyers Guild, California receives $100 million in federal money each year to conduct the checkpoints, and generates $40 million in revenue from the stops.
Cynthia Anderson-Barker, a civil rights attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, said that although the LAPD has revised its policy on impounding, they have found away around it by targeting minor infractions. She referenced a man she represented at a hearing over his car being impounded because of a miniature soccer ball hanging from his rearview mirror.
“If they find something dangling from your rearview mirror, they stop you and you don’t get to call a friend with a license,” she said. “That car is gone for 30 days. Any pretext, they will find it.”
Motorists who have had their cars impounded have a right to a hearing, but it is often unavailable to them, she said, due to the information appearing in small print or the police department being unhelpful when a hearing is requested.
Anderson-Barker has been collecting information from people who have had their vehicles impounded, getting their stories and seeing if they were informed of their right to a hearing. She plans to present her findings to the mayor and chief of police to get a change in policy.
“They shouldn’t be impounding these cars for 30 days,” she said. “It’s theft of private property. By the time the fees are up there at $1,500 people can’t afford to retrieve their cars. It’s outrageous.”
The National Lawyers Guild has alleged corruption within the sobriety checkpoint system. In it’s fact sheet it cites the case of the City of Maywood where a private towing company secured an exclusive contract with the police and payed for police officer’s meals, drinks and trips to Las Vegas.
Anderson-Barker said she is finding evidence of something similar in Los Angeles. She cited one example of a towing company that donated $45,000 to various city council members.
“[Towing companies] have a real interest in keeping this industry going,” she said.
Romeral said there is no monetary benefit for the police in doing sobriety checkpoints, just the satisfaction of arresting the occasional drunk driver, and thus potentially saving lives.
“We don’t see the revenue,” he said. “There are no bonus points for us or back pay. As far as what revenue the city gets, I don’t know. I know it doesn’t go directly into the police department.”
Activists alerting motorists of the checkpoint were warmly received with occasional car honks. Many cars turned onto Main Street to avoid the police stop. SCIC members worked in shifts warning motorists from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. when the police stop ended.
Martin Terrones, a founding member of SCIC, said it was important for people within these communities to monitor the checkpoints.
“The community is saying, ‘Hey, give us a little break,’” he said. “At least the LAPD knows we are here watching them and they’ll behave.”