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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

CA Impound Income Has Its Defenders

Here's the story from The Press Enterprise:
By PAUL LAROCCO
The Press-Enterprise

Like most drivers who lose their car in a DUI checkpoint, Siosaia Faiva hadn't been drinking.

When Moreno Valley police found that he had been driving with a suspended license -- the result of unpaid traffic tickets -- they impounded the 23-year-old's van. The subsequent fine and tow, Faiva said, were fair consequences of breaking the law.

But he also raised a question, echoed by many in a year when the state has increased grant-funded checkpoints by 43 percent: Is the cost of recovering an impound, which some checkpoints claim at a clip of more than 10 per hour, out of line?

In Faiva's case, he paid $700 to a Moreno Valley tow lot for just under a week of storage in early July, and another $120 for a release fee to the city. Had he not quickly restored his license, the full 30-day impound would have cost nearly $2,000.

"I don't think it's right, especially with (the economy) now," Faiva said. "They just rack up the money."

Impound-related costs, however, are defended strongly by both the tow companies and municipalities that gain funds through them.

For tow operators, they are necessary to offset high expenses and liabilities. For cities -- save for operating their own impound lots -- the fees are the only way to break even on the work it takes to process an impound.

"In my opinion, it's not a revenue-generating business," said San Bernardino County sheriff's Sgt. Dave Phelps, who coordinates the county's grant-funded checkpoints. "It's labor-intensive."

State law says release fees can only recoup a city's costs, not be set to earn profit. Agencies typically set such fees by calculating wages of those who contribute to an impound: the officer at the scene, the dispatcher taking information and the clerk processing paperwork.

Not Like Bell

Still, fees vary widely in the Inland area. For 30-day impounds -- vehicles seized from a DUI arrest or unlicensed driving citation -- they range from $77 in Banning to $245 in Riverside.

In the Los Angeles County city of Bell, which its own police officers alleged set a quota for impounds in order to generate revenue, the fee was $300.

Local agencies approaching that fee are quick to point out the differences between themselves and scandal-ridden Bell.

"We have never gone out and told people you have to tow so many cars. Never," said San Bernardino police Lt. Jarrod Burguan, whose City Council set a $230 release fee for 30-day impounds.

He acknowledged that each city has its own formula for calculating costs related to an impound, and that some may choose to incur more of the expenses than others.

"When we would call around, it was very difficult to get anybody to tell us: 'How did you come up with that rate?' 'What is that formula?' " Burguan said. "We used the total labor rate, salary and benefits of the employees involved."

One tow company owner said release fees charged by the cities he contracts with also cover a range. Arlan White, who runs Patriot Towing in Riverside, works with Colton police ($200), Riverside police ($245) and the California Highway Patrol's San Bernardino office (no fee.)

The Riverside Police Department, which charges motorists the highest fee in the area, also gets $65 per impound from White's fee.

Whether or not impounds are revenue-generators, White said he believes the violations they come from are worth pursuing for safety's sake.

"Remember, you cut down on accidents immensely when you get unlicensed drivers off the road," he said.

How It Works

Some people say checkpoints disproportionately target immigrants unable to obtain licenses. Statistics show the communities with the highest rate of impounds per checkpoint have high immigrant populations: Fontana, Perris, Rialto and Moreno Valley.

Officials in those cities point out that the California Office of Traffic Safety administers checkpoint grants based on the rate of DUI-related collisions, not on socioeconomic factors.

Moreno Valley, which has held 28 checkpoints in the past two years and impounded more than 1,100 vehicles from them, has the third-worst rate of "had been drinking" drivers out of 55 cities in the same population range, according to state statistics.

"This year, we've only had two fatal collisions, and for a city of our size, that's phenomenal," said Moreno Valley police Sgt. Jacquie Horton. "I truly believe the difference is how much we're out there."

Office of Traffic Safety officials agree. Agency spokesman Chris Cochran cited studies showing municipalities that conduct regular checkpoints can lower their DUI fatality rate by 25 percent.

"Things such as saturation patrols are very effective at catching drunks. Checkpoints are very effective at saving lives," he said. "We would rather save a lot of lives than issue a ticket."

Checkpoints, largely as a result of social-media users who widely broadcast their presence, serve their primary purpose as drunken driving deterrents, Cochran said. That is why only a fraction of vehicles impounded at the operations -- often less than 10 percent -- are from DUI.

As for the rest of the vehicles, not impounding them to give owners a financial break could leave law enforcement exposed should their drivers go on to be involved in a collision, officials say.

"To continue to let someone drive would be a liability," Fontana police traffic Sgt. Bob Morris said. "Basically, that would be letting them continue a crime."

Good for Business?

Companies that receive municipal tow contracts must abide by set rates, most often an average of all bidders. Many police agencies require daily storage fees of about $40 per day for average-size vehicles.

A motorist retrieving an impound will pay that price to the tow company, plus a flat fee for the actual tow -- typically between $100 and $200 -- and one to cover the lien process started in case of abandonment. That's not including the release fee, which goes directly to the city.

Jeff Hunter, executive director of the California Tow Truck Association, said roughly half of all 30-day impounds are never picked up, reducing profits for lot operators who never collect storage fees, then have to auction the car, often at a loss.

He defended his industry's rates, noting the high cost of insurance, trucks and of having employees on call 24 hours a day and available to respond within 20 minutes.

"You calculate things at the end of the month, and the tow operator has got the same amount of employees to pay," he said, "and he has to make do on whatever can still be collected."

White, of Patriot Towing, acknowledged that having more impounds is generally good for business, but said that overall, the tow industry has suffered major losses in the economic downturn.

A third of the vehicles he towed for Riverside police this year have been from checkpoints. But because of statewide public safety cuts, many agencies can no longer afford to run a six-hour checkpoint, with overtime for its officers, without grant funding.

"They're expensive operations and the personal danger factor is high," said California Highway Patrol Lt. Dave Lane. "You never know who's going to drive up to one, and that's not accounting for the officer who is off his beat, not answering calls because of the checkpoint."

Reach Paul LaRocco at 951-368-9468 or plarocco@PE.com

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