The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley found that sobriety checkpoints are more often turning into cash-generating operations for local law enforcement Ã¢â‚¬â€œ rather than a means to remove drunks from the road.
We started this story in September with a tip about DUI checkpoints in the North San Francisco Bay Area that netted more than 20 vehicles impounded, but hardly any drunken driving arrests.
Community activists alleged that the checkpoints were disproportionately impacting Hispanic neighborhoods. It wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t easy to determine who is losing their cars at checkpoints.
Several police departments said they do not track the ethnicity of drivers they cite and also declined to release citation data on privacy grounds.
But over the past three months, we conducted dozens of interviews with law enforcement, tow truck operators and motorists who had lost their cars at checkpoints. The consensus: Vehicles are predominantly seized from minority motorists Ã¢â‚¬â€œ often illegal immigrants.
We began the reporting in earnest in late October by requesting data detailing the results of sobriety checkpoints, by city, for the past two fiscal years (2007-08 and 2008-09) from the California Office of Traffic Safety and the UC Berkeley Safe Transportation Research and Education Center.
For each city, we calculated the per checkpoint averages for the number of police officer hours worked, number of DUI arrests, and number of vehicle impounds. We also calculated the ratio of vehicles impounded by each agency for every one DUI arrest made at sobriety checkpoints.
We wanted to answer the question, do cities with larger Hispanic populations impound more cars at their checkpoints?
Next, we imported demographic data from the U.S. Census BureauÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s American Community Survey (2006-08) for each city included in the checkpoints dataset. Specifically, we included the percentage of each cityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s population that identifies itself as Hispanic. For the small number of cities that were too small to be included in the survey, we used data from the 2000 census instead.
Using statistical analysis software (SPSS), we divided the 155 California cities in the dataset into quartiles based on their Hispanic population as a percentage of the whole. In cities in the quartile with the largest Hispanic populations, Hispanics constitute at least 48.5 percent of the total population. In cities in the quartile with the smallest Hispanic populations, Hispanics constitute 17.4 percent or less of the total population.
We then calculated averages for number of impounds per checkpoint, by quartile.
The results were stark.
Checkpoints in cities where Hispanics are the largest share of the population impounded 34 cars per operation, a rate three times higher than the cities with the smallest Hispanic populations, which averaged 11 per operation.
We used state checkpoints data, hundreds of pages of city financial records and tow receipts to determine an estimate of how much money vehicle seizures at checkpoints generate. Terry Odeon, a UC Berkeley finance professor, reviewed the methodology used to calculate the estimate and found it sound.
The California Tow Truck Association says that owners of these vehicles only recover them 30 percent of the time.
We determined the average tow bill paid statewide for car owners that did recover their vehicles last year was $1,805.20, including city impound release fees, and tow and storage charges, generating an estimated total of $13,078,674 last year for tow firms and cities. For unrecovered cars, we determined each car on average created a bill of $1,720, which tow firms receive from selling cars at lien sales. Those cars generated an estimated $29,080,040.
All together, cities and tow firms generated an estimated $42,158,714 last year.
UC Berkeley graduate journalism students assisted the reporting at several stages. Linsay Rousseau Burnett helped report at a checkpoint. Madeleine Bair provided translation for several interviews. And Karen Weise fact checked numerous parts of the story.
This project was produced in collaboration with California Watch, with Mark Katches editing throughout the process.