[Noozhawk’s note: An earlier version of this story reported that the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department receives the $150 administrative fee and part of the towing fees for impounded vehicles. In fact, it is Santa Barbara County that receives part of the towing fees, not the Sheriff’s Department. The story has been corrected.]
At first glance, an Iraq War veteran and a Montecito au pair might seem to have little in common. What they share, however, are recent experiences with DUI checkpoint impounds that paint a less-than-flattering picture of the increasingly common law-enforcement tactic.
Theodore Disho served five tours of duty in Iraq as an Air Force transport specialist supporting the Army’s 1st and 3rd Infantry divisions. During his stint, from 2002 to 2006, he was a volunteer for three of the six-month tours, replacing airmen with spouses and children. But an attack in Baghdad abruptly ended his military career and left him with severe injuries.
Now a political science senior at UCSB, Disho was driving to a friend’s house about a month ago when he was stopped at a DUI checkpoint on Los Carneros Road. Although the disabled combat veteran had not been drinking, his driver’s license had expired on his 27th birthday several days earlier. As a result, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies impounded his car and had it towed.
While the deputy treated him with respect and gave him a ride home, Disho said the officer had a mindset of “We’re taking your vehicle and there’s nothing you can do.”
To get his car back, Disho had to pay fees and fines of nearly $1,000 — half of his monthly pension, he said.
“It’s a bummer for me because that’s the money I was saving for textbooks,” said Disho, who has been eating a lot of cereal to reduce his living expenses.
“I took 500 bucks out of my savings just to pay for the impound fees.”
Meanwhile, Natalia Auza Sierra, 20, had been living in Santa Barbara for nearly a year, working as an au pair for a Montecito family. To celebrate her last day in the United States, the Mexican citizen and some friends decided to go to Freebirds in Isla Vista for a late-night snack. A burrito from the well-known hangout typically costs $6. Little did she know that the meal would end up running her about $600.
As Auza Sierra drove her friends to Isla Vista in her employer’s car, they noticed a DUI checkpoint on the way.
“It was funny because my friends and I were actually talking about how we thought it was great that they did that, because there are so many drunken drivers who come from I.V.,” Auza Sierra told Noozhawk via e-mail from her home in Tijuana.
That checkpoint would soon change her perception of U.S. law enforcement, however, after what she said was a “traumatizing” experience she will never forget.
“I wasn’t drinking, I’ve never gotten a ticket before, I wasn’t speeding, I wasn’t using a fake license or driving with no license at all,” Auza Sierra said.
She added that “extortion” like what she says she experienced has never happened to her, even in her hometown, where corruption allegations are commonplace.
“But it did surprise me,” she said. “It’s a way for young people to realize that these things happen, and that we don’t live in a perfect little world, especially in a place like Santa Barbara.”
On their way back, the young adults were stopped by sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Farmer, who asked them if they had been drinking, or had any alcohol in the car.
“No,” replied Auza Sierra, who explained the situation while handing Farmer her driver’s license and the paperwork for the car, which belonged to her employer, Rick Marcellin.
To her surprise, the license she had obtained in January was expired. Auza Sierra’s visa extended through December, but her license did not.
“It was my last night, the last two weeks before this had been super busy,” she said. “You see, in Mexico, we write the date the other way around. So, 08.10.2010 for you would be Aug. 10, but for us it would be Oct. 8.
“But I assume full responsibility for driving with an expired license,” she added.
Although the passengers all said they could drive the car home, the deputy denied their request, said Laura Bischofs, a Westmont College senior Spanish major and one of Auza Sierra’s companions.
“He just seemed like the kind of person who likes to take advantage of his power, or maybe he was just in a bad mood that day,” Auza Sierra said.
What allegedly happened next added a further twist to the encounter.
Auza Sierra called Marcellin, who explained to the deputy that the situation was all a mistake. He told Farmer that he would grant permission to any of Auza Sierra’s companions to drive his car home.
“This is where he disgraces himself, his uniform and his department,” Marcellin said of the short phone conversation.
“It’s too late, it’s already on the (tow) truck,” Marcellin said Farmer told him while Auza Sierra’s friends remained in the vehicle.
Inken Keller was one of the passengers.
“She (Auza Sierra) gave the cell to the officer and the officer told Rick that the car was on the tow truck, but we were still all sitting in the car,” Keller said.
Bischofs said the tow truck was more than a block away during the conversation. When the tow truck did arrive, she added, the driver began telling Farmer how good his commission had been that night, with six vehicles towed.
“It made me distrust police and made me think they were out to make money,” Bischofs said.
Reached by Noozhawk, Farmer declined to comment for this story, instead referring a reporter to Sheriff’s Department spokesman Drew Sugars.
Sheriff’s Department officials said “on the (tow) truck” could refer to several scenarios. The tow truck could be on its way to the scene or in the process of towing the vehicle, they said.
Still, Auza Sierra and Marcellin say they plan to file a formal complaint with the Sheriff’s Department.
“If you’re going to throw the book at someone, you better not be lying,” Marcellin said.
When Marcellin went to Bob Holzer Towing & Storage to retrieve his car, he ran into Disho. The two men struck up a conversation while waiting for assistance and Marcellin says he was surprised to learn that Disho had a similar story.
Disho told Noozhawk that he had asked sheriff’s officials for a copy of the regulations under which his car was impounded, but they denied his request, saying the information is considered “confidential.” He said he found the response to be strange because, in the military, virtually anything funded with taxpayer money — from instruction guides to field manuals to various regulations — is available to the public.
“There is no transparency,” he said of the DUI checkpoints. “There is a lot of room for discretion and officers can get away with things. How do you interact with an agency that refuses to disclose the rules?”
State law requires law-enforcement officers to impound the vehicles of unlicensed drivers or people who have had their licenses revoked; the vehicles may sit in storage for 30 days. Administrative, storage, citation and other fees can amount to as much as $2,000.
Officials say the Sheriff’s Department receives the $150 administrative fee, while the county receives a cut of the towing fees. The Santa Barbara Police Department has a similar arrangement.
According to this year’s Sheriff’s Department Towed Vehicle Report, 979 vehicles had been towed through Aug. 31, compared to 506 at the same point in 2009. Between September and December last year, 562 vehicles were towed. The majority of the drivers were charged with driving with a suspended license or without a license at all.
Sugars said there has not been a drastic change in the number of vehicles towed and that impounding quotas do not exist. But if there are more DUI checkpoints, he said, there may be more cars impounded.
Deputies stationed at checkpoints receive overtime pay through the California Office of Traffic Safety, which is funded by the federal government, according to a report by the California Watch and UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program. Overtime pay accounts for more than 90 percent of checkpoints’ expense, the report concluded. More checkpoints mean extra pay and more vehicles towed.
Westmont senior Joel Phillips, another of Auza Sierra’s companions, said there were about eight sheriff’s deputies at the DUI checkpoint.
“There were police drinking coffee, just sitting around,” the graphic design major said. “Another gentleman was pulled over, and was obviously intoxicated. One cop performed a sobriety test and another cop just seemed to be enjoying the spectacle.
“He wasn’t helping, he was cracking jokes and having a good time; it seemed pointless and unprofessional,” Phillips said. “I’m glad drunken drivers are off the road but it didn’t seem that the other cop needed to be there.”
Chief Deputy of Law Enforcement Jeoff Banks said the law is intended to protect motorists and ensure economic responsibility.
“Many hit-and-run accidents occur often with unlicensed drivers, and the victim of the accident is left with no recourse,” Banks said.
But Disho says law enforcement is driven by a means to generate revenue.
“What ends up happening is officers are pressured to perform; it becomes a matter of job security,” he said. “It’s another way they can generate revenue for the state, and a way to advance their careers.”
Nationwide, impounds at checkpoints generated an estimated $40 million in towing fees and police fines in 2009 — revenue that municipalities divide with towing firms, according to the California Watch report.
Banks disputed the validity of some of the information people tend to latch on to. Law-enforcement officers are solely trying to protect the public, he said.
“I think there’s a lot of information that’s not accurate,” Banks said. “The perspective that people should take needs to come from people who have licenses and insurance” and who are left to pay for increasing insurance rates and vehicular repairs.
But Marcellin argued that overstaffed checkpoints and an increasing number of citations represent a different motive.
“This is an incident of gauging taxpayers, and extorting people for their money,” he said.