Thursday, January 13, 2011

Santa Barbara DUI checkpoints; a misnomer?

Now that the holiday season is behind us, it's time to reflect on Santa Barbara law enforcement agencies' "DUI checkpoints" and, in particular, whether the checkpoints amount to an intelligent use of public funds.  First of all, let me clarify that they really aren't strictly DUI checkpoints.  Both in name and substance, they are DUI and driver license checkpoints.  In California, it is unlawful to have a checkpoint to detect just DUI or just unlicensed drivers.  The second point that should be made is that as much as the Santa Barbara law enforcement agencies, as they band together in the "Avoid the 12" campaign praise the checkpoints as an effective deterrent of driving under the influence, they know better than anyone does that the checkpoints are ineffective at detecting DUI drivers as compared with other methods of detection (namely, "saturation patrols").  I won't take the time to cull and study the hard data, but my sense from having read article after article about checkpoints, and from my work as a dui defense lawyer in Santa Barbara for over 10 years, where I regularly study the checkpoint arrest data made available to me by the Santa Barbara District Attorney's Office, is that checkpoints yield, on average, between one and two DUI arrests each.  Sometimes they don't arrest anyone for DUI at all.  Goose egg.  The number of vehicles that pass through any given DUI checkpoint in Santa Barbara is often in the high hundreds or even over 1,000.

So, if DUI (aka DUI/license) checkpoints in Santa Barbara are ineffective at detecting DUI, why have them?  Well, that's a fair question to ask local law enforcement.  Is the deterrent value really more powerful with a checkpoint than the press releases warning of the checkpoint and reporting the arrest results after the fact?  I don't think anyone knows.  What one might say is that without the news of a checkpoint, the news media wouldn't publish a press release having to do with DUI and the associated dangers of arrest, accidents, etc.  I disagree.  The new news media, in the digital age, reports everything that law enforcement puts out there.  Edhat, the lead news blog in Santa Barbara, apparently does this without any evaluative/editorial decision-making whatsoever.  Santa Barbara Police could send out a press release that the officers issued three parking tickets last Sunday, along with the names of those cited, and Edhat, per their policy (or maybe lack thereof) would probably publish it.  The other local news outlets would not necessarily run a story or blurb in reaction to every single SBPD news release, but I don't think, on the whole, the police would say that they are ignored by the local news media when they issue warnings to the local population, in the form of press releases, about the dangers of drinking and driving and their decisions to increase personnel on patrol.  I've seen many a story, and blurb, about that. 

Pueblo, a local political action group, has spent a lot of time and energy educating the public about what they see as selective enforcement in this realm.  A dirty little secret is that Santa Barbara DUI checkpoints are primarily motivated by two things:  (1) the infusion of state and federal grant money ear-marked for this purpose and (2) the revenue generated by impounding the vehicles of unlicensed drivers.  The fees, fines and proceeds of sale at auction of these vehicles generates a significant amount of revenue for law enforcement, the courts and, yes, the  local tow yards.  Ever since California started requiring proof of legal status before issuing drivers licenses (back in the 90's), more and more people have been driving while unlicensed in our community.  These, of course, are largely the undocumented laborers all around us.  They are the gardeners, the housekeepers, chefs, cooks, dishwashers, painters, skilled and unskilled construction workers, and "heavy lifters" out there.  They scrounge together what little money they have to put food on their tables and buy jalopies to get to their work sites from Goleta, Hope Ranch, down to Montecito and beyond only to have local law enforcement stage checkpoints that make grand claims about protecting the public through this method.  They cite dusty statistics while claiming that unlicensed drivers account for the great majority of traffic accidents to rationalize the economic suffering imposed on undocumented drivers by these checkpoints.  They do so in reckless disregard of the fact that these statistics do not reflect the new realities of who make up this bigger than ever population of unlicensed drivers.  In fact, there is more than enough reason to suppose that undocumented aliens are more careful drivers than the rest of the population because they are often mortified at the possibility of getting stopped for a minor traffic violation and are, therefore, less likely to commit one.  While a licensed driver might get a ticket, an undocumented and, therefore, unlicensed driver might lose their vehicle and, worse yet, be deported and excluded from the U.S. permanently.  It's a good time to discuss further the problems posed by DUI Checkpoints and, in particular, the problems they are directed at solving, the problems they don't really solve (but are claimed to) and the problems and injustices (in they eyes of many) that they cause.