For many motorists, a police DUI and license checkpoint is a momentary inconvenience – making sure seat belts are fastened, cell phones put away, and having to dig out the drivers license.
“Have you been drinking tonight?” the officer will ask, to which most Lompoc drivers can truthfully answer no.
For a select few, such as 14 motorists driving along North A Street on Thursday night in Lompoc, who had drunk at least a little, the checkpoints can serve as a powerful reminder not to drink and drive.
Those 14 were fortunate. They tested below the .08 blood alcohol level and were let go with a warning instead of a misdemeanor and time in jail.
But the group most affected by the checkpoints are the unlicensed drivers, many of them immigrants without any valid form of California ID.
It was only a few minutes into the checkpoint Thursday before an unlicensed driver came through.
The woman, without any form of identification, was asked to step out of her car immediately.
“Driver!” the officer called out, and one of the police volunteers who help to operate the checkpoint jogged over, to drive the car into a nearby lot, while the officer escorted the woman to a set of tables and chairs to be processed.
Also getting out of the car was the woman’s daughter, Erika Leyva, who cried, holding her 1-year-old son in her arms while her mother was taken away.
“She doesn’t have any ID on her. She’s going to be brought to our jail and held,” Sgt. Ed Lardner explained to Leyva.
“We’re going to impound the car. Is there someone you can call?” Lardner asked, handing Leyva his cell phone.
“It’s going to be hard, we don’t have any money,” Leyva said, after calling a family member to pick her up.
Leyva said when they first saw the cones and the officers, they thought it was an accident scene. Leyva confirmed that her mother had no U.S. ID, only a Mexican one, which had expired. Leyva said they knew it was against the law to drive the car without a license.
“We didn’t know it would be that bad,” Leyva said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Groceries and a baby seat were unloaded from the car before it was towed away. The stoic mother was led in handcuffs to the back of a squad car to be taken to jail.
An unlicensed driver without proper identification will be taken to the Lompoc Jail, to be photographed and fingerprinted to try to confirm their identity. Assuming the national database, or the department’s records, has a record of them, the driver will be eligible for bail, typically $2,300. They then have to appear in court to face the misdemeanor charge of driving without a license.
The car, however, will remain impounded for 30 days, unless the driver can obtain a California drivers license. Impound costs often total more than $2,000.
According to Lardner, who serves as the department’s Police Traffic Supervisor, if drivers had any sort of appropriate identification, such as a passport from a foreign country, they could be ticketed for driving without a drivers license, and sent on their way, instead of taken into custody.
He said the police invited an immigrations officer to assist with one checkpoint this year.
“We thought it would help with the identification of individuals, get more of them out of jail faster, and it didn’t, really,” Lardner said.
They are called “DUI and license checkpoints,” but officers check for much more, running license plates in search of stolen cars and people with warrants. Smaller infractions, such as talking on a cell phone or forgetting a seat belt, can also earn a citation. So far this year, the checkpoints have also nabbed 10 people with arrest warrants, as well as taken 45 people off the roads with suspended licenses.
By the number, the biggest of the checkpoints’ effects is in taking unlicensed drivers, and their cars, off the road. According to checkpoint results released by the police department, in 2009 there have been 74 drivers arrested for failure to show a drivers license, compared to seven arrests for alcohol or drug use while driving.
“I think our focus has always been on taking intoxicated drivers off the road,” said Police Capt. Donald Deming.
When asked about the disparity in arrest numbers, Deming said it was not an intended outcome of the department’s policies.
“That’s not a change in focus. It’s just a reflection of what we’re finding out here,” Deming said.
The police captain added that the low number of DUI arrests could also be a reflection of the checkpoint’s ability to deter people from drinking and driving in the first place.
“It’s just another one of our tools, a different approach,” Deming said.
It is also an expensive approach. More than a dozen community volunteers, including Police Explorers, help with setting up, and running each checkpoint. Thursday night, one of the explorers also provided Spanish translation for several officers. An additional jailer and dispatcher are also needed to handle the demand of a checkpoint operation. In all, the “manpower intensive” operation costs $4,000 to $6,000 a night, according to Lardner.
Funding for the checkpoints in Lompoc all comes from a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Deming and Lardner said that without grant support the department would reallocate other funding and personnel hours to do checkpoints, but on a much reduced scale.
At least 16 checkpoints were held so far this year in Lompoc, in almost as many different locations.
“We try to mix it up a little,” Lardner said, adding that a recent checkpoint placed on the quieter residential street of Pine Avenue netted officers two DUI arrests.
Another reason behind the changing of locations is to beat word of mouth.
“It’ll be on MySpace and Facebook. I’ve had a friend say it was announced in a bar,” Lardner said.
All of Lardner’s locations are chosen to suit the checkpoint operation: having adequate street lights, good sight lines for traffic, a nearby parking lot that can be used to search and tow cars, a moderate volume of traffic, and no easy escape routes.
Up the block, an officer on motorcycle lay in wait, radioing in descriptions of suspicious vehicles, and ready to pull over anyone who tried to turn out of the checkpoint.
“It’s illegal to do a U-turn here,” Lardner said and grinned.
In the first two hours of Thursday night’s checkpoint, no one pulled a U-turn to escape, but one driver did coast through the checkpoint without stopping. An officer quickly hopped in a squad car and pulled the vehicle over a block away.
“That happens a lot. They miss the big 4-foot sign, and the officer shouting to stop, and just go right by,” Lardner said.
Lompoc residents can expect to see a lot of checkpoint activity through the end of the year. On Friday, the police department announced receiving $271,045 in additional funding through the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program.
A portion of the money will go toward a DUI processing trailer, traffic message board, and outdoor lighting system, all of which would be used to help conduct further checkpoints, according to Lardner. The grant will also help pay overtime to put two additional patrol units on the streets every weekend in December.
Lardner said five checkpoints are planned for between Dec. 5 and New Year’s Day.