WatchSonoma Watch

Clash over checkpoints

Activists decry impound policy at DUI checkpoints, say illegal immigrants face undue hardship


Standing on the side of Old Redwood Highway, just south of Jay Palm’s saddle shop in Penngrove, a Latina held up a colorful sign with the word “Reten” written twice. About 500 yards down the road, local attorney Alicia Roman held up a similar sign.

Alicia Roman, an attorney and immigrant-rights activist, talks to an unlicensed driver who had his car impounded during a DUI/driver's license checkpoint set up July 23 by Petaluma police. “It's just not right for police to impound cars of non-drunken drivers for 30 days,” Roman said. “Especially when they are allowing drunken drivers to pick up their cars the very next day.” (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

For Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants, the meaning — “checkpoint” — was clear that Friday evening.

Some took heed and quickly turned off at Goodwin Avenue. Those who ignored the warning, or did not understand it, suddenly found themselves amid a sea of orange cones as Petaluma police officers slowed traffic and guided drivers through a stop aimed at nabbing drunken drivers, unlicensed drivers and those with suspended licenses.

One Petaluma woman, an illegal immigrant without a license, was pulled over and lost her husband’s ’98 Mustang convertible to a 30-day impound. Late for her job as a cleaner at the nearby shopping center, she walked toward North McDowell Boulevard, talking to her husband on her cell phone.

“I feel horrible,” she said, speaking in Spanish as she walked, hauling her son’s car safety seat.

“I’ve heard about these things, but I never imagined it would happen,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. “I need to work and I can’t get a driver’s license.”

She was one of four drivers that night whose cars were impounded for license infractions. They were snared in a state-funded program that has developed into a high-profile crackdown with two aims: Take drunken drivers off the road and enforce state law requiring drivers to have a license.

Immigrant-rights activists Nissar Ahmed, left, and Carl Patrick, right, hold up signs reading "Reten," warning Spanish-speaking drivers that there is a checkpoint ahead. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

For every one DUI arrest made at a Petaluma checkpoint in the past five years, four people were cited or arrested for driving without a license.

Even as a tow truck hitched up the Mustang, an untold number of illegal immigrants successfully avoided the checkpoint in what has become a sort of cat-and-mouse game that pits traffic safety efforts with local immigrant-rights activists.

State officials say that what’s driving the $14 million that goes toward funding traffic safety checkpoints in California is a dramatic, 20 percent decline in “alcohol-impaired” deaths, from 1,298 in 2005 to 1,029 in 2008.

Immigrant-rights advocates like Roman, a Santa Rosa lawyer, focus on the economic and emotional hardship immigrant families suddenly face when their car is confiscated. The cost of recovering a car after 30 days can reach up to $2,000, a figure that includes a $50-a-day storage fee at a local tow yard, a towing fee and a police administrative fee.

“It’s just not right for police to impound cars of non-drunken drivers for 30 days,” Roman said. “Especially when they are allowing drunken drivers to pick up their cars the very next day.”

Preventing accidents

But Petaluma Police Sgt. Ken Savano, coordinator of the “Avoid the 13” Sonoma County DUI Task Force, which represents 13 law enforcement agencies in the county, says the checkpoints are first and foremost about traffic safety.

He points to traffic safety studies that show that unlicensed drivers and those who drive with suspended or revoked licenses cause a disproportionate number of accidents.

“Traffic safety is saving lives and preventing injuries, and one of the tools that we have is to enforce the laws that the people have enacted that are designed to improve safety,” said Savano.

Late last year, the California Office of Traffic Safety dubbed 2010 “The Year of the Checkpoint,” alerting California drivers of record funding for checkpoint campaigns throughout the state, from $5 million in 2009 to $8 million this year.

The Petaluma Police Department, which last year became the county’s coordinator of state-funded “Avoid” checkpoints, has been involved in 15 checkpoints so far this year. Two more are planned in Sonoma and Cloverdale before Labor Day, and another two are scheduled for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Since May 2005, Petaluma has staged 70 checkpoints, screening about 64,500 vehicles, conducting 2,027 field sobriety tests and arresting a total of 742 people. Of these arrests and citations, 111 have been for drunken driving, 134 for driving on a suspended license and 418 for driving without a license. There also have been 21 arrests for drug offenses and 30 arrests for other violations.

Checkpoints as deterrent

Chris Cochran, a state traffic safety office spokesman, said sobriety checkpoints nab fewer drunken drivers than so-called “saturation patrols,” where police units target specific roads to identify and arrest impaired drivers.

However, the checkpoints send a much stronger and visible message, one that is highly publicized, beginning with a press release from the local police department.

“You want there to be a large deterrent,” said Cochran.

New technologies have helped get out the word. When a checkpoint is encountered, he said, word of the operation spreads fast, via cell phone calls, Twitter messages and text messages.

“This is all fine with us,” Cochran said. “We want more and more people to know about them.”

“Those people who may have contemplated going out and drinking, they will be more likely to arrange for a designated driver or a cab or some way of getting around,” he said.

Two checkpoints on July 23 in Petaluma netted three suspected drunken drivers, one with an blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit.

The early checkpoint on Old Redwood Highway near North McDowell Boulevard was held between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. and coincided with the happy-hour bar crowd.

The second was staged on Petaluma Boulevard North, near Gossage Avenue, between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., and was aimed at late-night downtown bar-goers.

At the Old Redwood Highway checkpoint, motorcycle patrol officers kept a lookout for drivers who turned off the street. Savano said avoiding a checkpoint is illegal if the driver commits a traffic violation in the process, such as an illegal U-turn.

Fear of deportation

One driver, another illegal immigrant who asked that his name not be used for fear of deportation, drove through the checkpoint early in the evening and lost a 2000 Mercury Cougar to a 30-day impound.

The man, who works as a ranch hand, never strayed far from the checkpoint after losing his car. Something was troubling him, he later admitted. Several family members joined him on the sidewalk, waiting to talk to Savano.

The man asked why his citation called for an appearance in Sonoma County Superior Court, rather than traffic court. He wanted to know if immigration enforcement officials would be there waiting for him.

“Immigration is not going to deport you for driving without a license,” Savano said, adding later than he recognized the man’s fear.

“I feel bad about the financial impact,” Savano said in a follow-up interview last week. “But our fundamental duty is public safety.”

Immigration advocates call for the use of greater discretion in the 30-day impound rule.

Roman, who represents local tenants in eviction cases, is one of the main organizers of the checkpoint protests. Since last year, the loose-knit group of activists have mobilized up to 10 people for a checkpoint operation, she said.

She acknowledged that a possible fallout from warning Spanish-speaking drivers about the checkpoints is that a drunken driver could be tipped off, avoid the checkpoint and later cause an accident.

She said the signs used to be in both English and Spanish, but the group narrowed them down to Spanish to minimize the possibility of aiding drunken drivers avoid the checkpoints.

“That would be terrible,” Roman said. “I can’t say that there’s not going to be a Latino that’s not going to see our signs and drive drunk. ... I’m out here trying to help the families of the poor. The majority of the people at this time, it’s people coming home from work.”

Impound discretion

She said the police have a choice: “You don’t have to impound cars.”

Cochran said state law does give local law enforcement officials the discretion to avoid the 30-day impound rule for driver’s license violations.

“Some jurisdictions say, ‘I’ll give you 20 minutes to get a licensed driver to come here.’ That’s a local policy call which may or may not be actionable in court.”

But he added that such a call is “much more the exception than the rule” for the more than 470 law enforcement agencies in the state.

Savano said jurisdictions that enforce the 30-day impound law are “clearly concerned with improving traffic safety.”

He said the intent of the legislature when it enacted the rule was to remove the vehicle from the drivers who statistically had been shown to cause anywhere from four to five times as many crashes as licensed drivers.

Savano said the primary concern of enforcement officers is applying traffic laws equally.

“If we were to suddenly change our policy to allow certain unlicensed drivers some different opportunity or policy, how then do we stay fair and impartial to other people who are caught or stopped for driving without a license?” he asked.

Last Tuesday, four days after the ranch hand lost his car, the man, his wife, a daughter and a friend visited the Petaluma police station to try to get his car out of the impound lot. The car, which was being held in the Petaluma Towing yard at 1800 Petaluma Boulevard, had already racked up hundreds of dollars in storage and tow fees.

Tow hearings are held at the police station between noon and 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Aside from a $140 administrative tow fee, Petaluma Towing charges a $186 tow fee and a $50-a-day storage fee. The administrative tow fee is authorized by the state and allows the city to recover costs associated with the storage and impound of the vehicle.

The man said he desperately wanted to get the Mercury Cougar out of impound so that he could sell it and keep his financial loss to a minimum. He said he figured he could get $4,000 for the car, though he would have to pay about $2,000 in impound costs after 30 days.

Amalia Greenberg Delgado, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the practice of impounding vehicles for 30 days where a traffic safety issue does not exist may violate some drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights, which limit the forfeiture of property without due process.

“The 30-day impound is discretionary,” she said.

Local law enforcement officials said the checkpoints will continue because they have been effective at raising public awareness about important traffic safety issues.

As a line of cars drove through the recent Old Redwood Highway checkpoint, Savano pointed out that there were a total of 608 DUI arrests in Petaluma last year.

Since 2005, DUI arrests are up 80percent, from 334 to 608, he said, and alcohol-related collisions have declined by 20 percent.

“Arrests are up, crashes are down,” Savano said. “But the most significant statistic is that nobody died from an alcohol-related collision in Petaluma in 2009, and so far the same is true in 2010.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

26 Responses to “Clash over checkpoints”

  1. Megan says:


    I hate to break it to you, but what language? The United States has no official language. Therefore, what official language is there for them to learn? They have every right under the Constitution to speak Spanish. If you don’t like that, move to another country.

  2. armando says:

    please be nice, everybody talk like perfect persons .check inside you heart and respect
    people any color and race who are you to say other people is illegal

  3. @Jose Martinez-Fuentes says:

    Impounding a car for endangering the lives of everyone else is a VERY minor punishment. If you don’t have a valid license, you were not properly tested. If you don’t have insurance, you can’t financially cover your accidents. If you are in the country illegally, you are a trespasser. If you did any of the above, YOU ARE A CRIMINAL. 30-day impound? I’d recommend prosecution and deportation.

  4. @Michaele Morales says:

    Then why are the checkpoints held on weekends when everyone is drinking?

    Keep arresting any lawbreakers, police!

  5. Jose Martinez-Fuentes says:

    I’m mexican and perhaps is why I hear personal stories of mexicans who on their way to work or pick up their children at school have had their car taken away and have to pay thousands to get it back. They were not drinking and driving, they should be fined even have the car towed but confiscated for 30 days etc is excessive punishment.

  6. Jim Stewart says:

    It does make you wonder if the sing, only in spanish, helped the driver of the fatal crash the tother day, avoid the checkpoint? If he had, his van would have been impounded because he was driving without a license, his privledge to drive was also suspended for a DUI and he was an illegal immigrant. He killed a co-worker while driving him to the field, then fled because he was illegal, unlicensed and had no insurance.

    People who scoff at that law only have to look as far as the morgue. Another one dies because of this issue. Hold your sign if you must, dont get your feet wet from what is dripping off it, because now there is blood on your hands.

  7. lindsey607 says:

    Get your citizenship learn the language or go back to where you are from.This nation does not need you if you are a law breaker.

  8. CC says:

    I am with Ms. Roman. And while we are at it let’s not make such a big deal about drunk in public, DUI’s, shoplifting, hit and run, robbery and the rest. These laws only target the poor?
    Ms. Roman, you have no moral high ground here, your credibility is now in question. Help illegal people of any race, creed or color avoid the checkpoints is aiding and abetting. You should be ashamed!
    Now take your cute little act on the road and help these, “poor-people” get a license, get insurance, and pay attention to the law, not circumvent it!
    Oh wait you cant do that they can’t afford your rates.

  9. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    Regarding Michaele Morales comments, the article clearly states:

    “He points to traffic safety studies that show that unlicensed drivers and those who drive with suspended or revoked licenses cause a disproportionate number of accidents.

    Traffic safety is saving lives and preventing injuries, and one of the tools that we have is to enforce the laws that the people have enacted that are designed to improve safety,” said Savano.”

    The goals of the checkpoints seem pretty clear, and of course it’s stating the obvious: If you have a valid drivers’ license, vehicle registration and automobile insurance, it really doesn’t matter what your surname is when stopped at a check point. If you don’t have the above, again, it doesn’t matter what your surname is. You will be cited and your vehicle impounded.

    Instead of local attorney Alicia Roman holding up a sign that said “Reten”, she should have been holding up a sign that said ‘Don’t Drive Unlicensed and Uninsured’.

  10. What laws? says:

    I wonder if Alicia Roman and her friends
    that are warning drivers away from checkpoints can be held liable if that person causes an accident shortly after avoiding the checkpoint.
    After all, she did acknoledge that a drunken driver might be tipped off by her signs and avoid the checkpoint.
    I also wonder if Ms. Roman would be willing to fly in an airplane in which the pilot had no valid license or had their license revoked for some reason.
    Would she be supportive of someone warning pilots that the F.A.A. was waiting to remove them from the cockpit prior to departure?
    The article states that Ms. Roman represents local tenants in eviction cases.Are they also illegal immigratns?
    In other words, she keeps legal property owners from being able to evict people who do not pay their rent,trash the property, or cause other problems.This seems to be a pattern….those who play by the rules are punished and expected to tollerate and make endless concessions for those who break them.

  11. Jack Schuster says:

    For the record, check your uninsured motorist coverage. I thought I was covered but found out after being rear-ended that my policy only covered bodily injury- uninsured caused property damage (my totaled vehicle) was a separate coverage. I’m covered now, for next time.

  12. Michaele Morales says:

    These so called checkpoints are not to stop drunk drivers, if they were the checkpoints would be held close to all the wine tasting rooms. Didn’t a young lady just kill two women while driving drunk after wine tasting? These checkpoints sole purpose is to make money by impounding cars for thirty days and for the police officers to make overtime pay by having these checkpoints nearly every weekend. Good for all the activists. If the police really want to prevent drunk driving then they should take thier checkpoints to where the drunk drivers are most likely to be, the bars, clubs and the wineries.

  13. akr says:

    @ The Real Issue PEOPLE!

    That must have been a very traumatizing incident for everyone in your family, and I’m very glad it turned out not to be a fatal accident. But how on earth do you know it was an illegal immigrant if the guy got away and no one ever figured out who, exactly, it was? Couldn’t it just have been an ordinary hit-and-run driver who didn’t want to deal with the consequences of his bad driving?

    Clearly an irresponsible person, though. Which is what I think is most important.

  14. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    I’m a little curious; can a non-licensed driver actually have a valid automobile insurance policy? If the vehicle belongs to someone else, is the non-licensed driver covered for accidents under the legal-owners’ policy? Who is fiscally liable if a non-licensed driver is in an accident and one, or more than one, person is killed?

    Just wondering who picks up the pieces for the victims, and victims family, when an unlicensed driver kills an innocent person. Maybe local attorney Alicia Roman can offer some insight into these questions.

  15. Laurie says:

    Wow. I was shocked to read that a licensed attorney was helping people commit a crime. You say rarely are illegal aliens are driving drunk, just without a license and insurance? Let me take you on a field trip to the cemetary and introduce you to ALL those who have died by drunk drivers who were not only drunk, but had no license and no insurnace, but who did have a sense of entitlement to be in our country, breaking the laws of our country, and killing people. Alicia, I would be happy to take you on a field trip there. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  16. Mike says:

    No license, no insurance and they are driving on the same roads as I drive on. I have a valid license and insurance which costs me hundreds of dollars every year. I should feel sorrow for illegals breaking the laws. Not so much.

  17. John Daigle says:

    I had to do a double take when I read Sundays front page about checkpoints.

    Is there something I’m missing here?

    A. These people are here illegally. They snuck into this country uninvited.

    B. They are driving without a license.

    Undue hardship? What happened to common sense in this country?

    This is not about racism, they could be illegal Poles, Frenchmen or whatever!

    Impound their cars, pay a fine for driving without a license, then turn them over to INS for deportation.

    Let them get in line with other “honest” would be immigrants, if they want to live here.

    One more thing, the so called activists, holding up signs warning of the checkpoints, should be arrested for interfering with the police.

  18. ED says:

    Funny how “Illegal” does not pertain to citizenship! Illegal is Illegal.
    Aruba, show up without a passport-jail
    America, no passport- key to the city.
    Time to end the nonsense!
    Deport ALL illegal immigrants NOW!!
    Follow the rules and you can come back,
    Don’t and go to jail,just like in Mexico.

  19. Terry says:

    Humm, here ILLEGALLY, driving ILLEGALLY, getting help from a lawyer to not get caught doing the illegal stuff. This doesn’t sound legal. If we were in their country I bet we wouldn’t be treated like the illegals do here.
    I was raised by a cop, if you are doing something illegal, you should pay the concenquences and and the LEGAL people/citizens should NOT have to pay for what the illegals do.
    Get Legal or GET OUT/go home.

  20. The Real Issue PEOPLE! says:

    Going on the record that I am born here but of Mexican decent and my whole extended family came here legally. My Grandfather taught my uncles and aunts that we are to obey the laws of this county and be thankful for the opportunities that she provides.
    Many of the new wave of Mexican immigrants acts and speaks if though they have entitlement to many of the American privileges which so many immigrants before them worked so hard to acquire driving being one of them.
    Yes it’s horrible to think an immigrant who does not speak the language to have his only mode of transportation taken away from him due to his legal status, but the main issues here are safety and responsibility. In order to get a California licenses the DMV requires drivers to have some level of understanding of laws and safety rules of the road which most undocumented people don’t. Once the driver is licensed they have to get insurance in order to drive their car so just in case an accident happens they can be financially responsible for the accident if they are at fault.
    Many years ago an undocumented immigrant plowed his car into my Grandmother living room almost killing my 1 year old cousin. The undocumented immigrant jump out of the car and ran off to never be caught. My Grandmother’s (A legal Mexican immigrant with insurance; get it Libs?) Homeowners insurance had to pay for all the damages that had occurred because the car in the accident was not registered to anyone and had no insurance.
    This is not about race, immigrant status or language it’s about safety-responsibility and I am sick of a hand full of Latinos making it such.
    Undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County should be thankful they are not deported on the spot like they do in other part of California and southern States. Then that would really suck.

  21. btinc says:

    Whatever you feel about illegal immigration (I want to see serious reform), there can be no question as to how you deal with anyone driving without a license or insurance: arrest them.

    People who break the law in this manner endanger us all, and have no means to pay for any accident they cause.

  22. NOTUTOO says:

    At first I thought that Roman was an adcovate for those living in our country illegally, that she had a humanitarian agenda to help them…But reading this article and seeing her in action, she just chasing ambulances of sorts. She’s just going to where the future clients are…Does she have no Shame?

  23. Karla Sofen says:

    We need to start arresting the people tipping off illegal drivers with signs for 659 PC. Freedom of speech does not apply when you are helping someone get away with a crime.

    Is Petaluma PD notifying ICE when they encounter an illegal? Someone should be calling the FBI and getting the PPD supervisors and leadership charged with misprison of a felony – a Federal crime.

  24. Mary says:

    What is the issue here? The fact of the matter is that if you do not have a license you do not have the privledge of driving regardless of your immigration status. Period.

    There should not be special considerations for any group of individuals especially for those who are in this country illegally.

  25. Lyn says:

    While I appreciate the difficult circumstances impounding a car puts people in, the alternative is worse.

    The remedy demanded by “immigrant-rights advocates” is to give the illegal driver 20 minutes to find a licensed driver to take the car away. What’s the likely result of that? The illegal will be back behind the wheel and driving (uninsured) down the road.

    Unlicensed and uninsured drivers injure and kill people in auto accidents at a rate higher than the population that obeys the law. Keeping them off the road seems like a good idea to me.

    The life saved may be someone you know and love. Even if not, they will be an innocent victim. I can’t say the same about people who violate our laws.

  26. Dan says:

    Seems as if Ms. Roman is barking up the wrong tree. If you don’t like the law, and that is certainly your right, petition those in a position to change it (i.e., the legislature). Your efforts should be directed toward Evans, Huffman, Wiggins (or whoever acts for her these days) and that crowd. The cops are just enforcing the law. They didn’t write it.

    What I didn’t hear in the discussion was how many of these unlicensed drivers are also uninsured. My guess is that most, if not all, are uninsured risks to the rest of us. Regardless of their immigration status, it seems to me a good thing to get these drivers off the road.