Escondido Profits From Undocumented Immigrants

On a spring morning in 2010, Leticia dropped two of her children at school, and continued on to run errands with her 4-year-old daughter. Then, she was stopped at a checkpoint. According to retired San Diego police officer, Carlos Ronquillo, who was a witness, Escondido was conducting a DUI checkpoint at 9:30 in the morning. Because she did not have a driver's license, Leticia was suspected of being an undocumented immigrant and ICE officials were notified. Ronquillo watched as Leticia was handcuffed and separated from her U.S. citizen daughter. Within hours, she had been taken to an immigration holding facility, processed, and was then deported to Tijuana, Mexico. After living in Escondido for over 10 years, Leticia was separated from her four children.

Located in northeast San Diego County, the city of Escondido has a population of 145,000 and is 49 percent Latino and growing. In the past several years, the city council has enacted ordinances and legislation directly targeting the growing Latino and undocumented immigrant population. In 2006, a ban to rent apartments to anyone without proof of legal residency was implemented but quickly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Soon after, bans to prohibit food carts and impose parking restrictions in Latino neighborhoods were proposed. Tensions between the city and the Latino and immigrant population were growing.

Then, in 2010, the Escondido police began working side-by-side with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to orchestrate their most brazen attack on undocumented immigrants yet. Called "Operation Join Effort," ICE agents and the Escondido police department began conducting DUI checkpoints that operate as immigration checkpoints. The checkpoints net about 10 unlicensed drivers for every drunk driver and the vast majority of unlicensed drivers are undocumented immigrants. A disproportionate number of undocumented immigrants are deported and have their vehicles impounded and sold while Escondido illegally profits from revenue generated by the checkpoints. In the past three years Escondido and tow companies with city contracts, have pulled in $11 million in fees, citations and auctioned vehicles.

Escondido is believed to be the only city in the country to have a special agreement with ICE agents who have their offices within the Escondido police department and are on standby during sobriety checkpoints.

The State of California's Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) provides grants to fund DUI checkpoints in Escondido as well as other cities throughout California. And while the Escondido police department insists that checking a driver's license at DUI checkpoints is mandatory in order to qualify for state grants, OTS states that they "do not penalize a grantee for not checking [a driver's license]." According to Bill Flores, a retired Assistant Sheriff for San Diego County and Escondido resident, the checkpoints unfairly target immigrants and brown people: "It is a way for the police department to make it so hard for them to live here that they will move somewhere else."

One of the conditions of the OTS grant program--which forks over $350,000 per year to Escondido--is that profits cannot be generated from checkpoints. Also, by law, the state of California does not allow police agencies to make a profit from towing cars. Yet an extensive review of city and police documents reveals that Escondido has been profiting immensely from both state-funded DUI checkpoints and towing of cars.

In order to be able to tow cars for the city of Escondido, a tow company had to pay the city $25,000 in 2004; in 2007, it was up to $50,000; and by 2011, that figure reached a staggering $100,000. After the tow companies demanded a justification for the steep increase, the city reduced the fees. Each of the six tow companies now pay the city $75,000 for a grand total of $450,000 per year.

There's a reason that tow companies are willing to pay so much to be included. During the past eight years of state-funded DUI checkpoints, they made millions of dollars. On average, from 2004 - 2011, 5,000 vehicles were towed each year. Unlicensed drivers in Escondido were being caught by the thousands and each one represented an impound fee, a tow hitch fee, and a 30-day impound storage fee totaling about $2,000 per vehicle. In 2007 according to Escondido police documents, the department considered starting their own city-run tow yard so that they could keep most of the revenue. Escondido abandoned the venture but it was clear that the city was interested in increasing profits from state-funded checkpoints and the towing of cars - both illegal practices.

State law requires that Escondido police justify tow fees and bill the tow companies only for the direct costs of towing cars. In order to substantiate the $450,000 they receive from the tow companies, the Escondido police department has had to employ some very creative accounting. A 2011 police tow program report shows the Escondido police listing tow expenses for items such as bulletproof vests, weapons and wear and tear on police radios, cell phones and vehicles. These bogus line items pad expenses by at least 60 percent.

To justify raising tow contract fees, the Escondido police dept has also inflated the amount of labor involved in a tow. According to 2004 and 2007 police tow program reports, the Escondido police department claimed it would take a total of 33 minutes of labor to tow a vehicle, including paperwork. By 2011, the police department was claiming that it took 187.5 minutes. Marcos Ramirez, a retired sergeant who handled traffic safety for the San Diego County Sheriff's department, says this doesn't add up. "There is no need to bill for so much time to tow a vehicle," says Ramirez. "Either Escondido is looking to pad their books or they don't know how to tow a car. If it took my officers that long to tow a vehicle, they would be fired."

In addition to collecting $450,000 a year from tow companies as well as the $350,000 in grant money from the OTS, Escondido also collects an $180 impound fee from the owner of each car which amounts to an average of $500,000 a year. Yet, the state grant for DUI checkpoints is all-inclusive -- intended to cover officer labor time and equipment. This past year, Escondido reduced their tow fees from $180.00 to $100.00 for cars that were towed during OTS-funded checkpoints. After repeated requests for documents that justify the reduction in fees and why the fees were not reduced for previous years, the city of Escondido stated that no documents exist to justify the recently lowered impound fee -- which is still questionably legal.

All residents of Escondido want safer streets and fewer drunk drivers on the road, but with ICE agents on standby, and checkpoints being conducted even in the mornings, it's clear that the intent of these checkpoints are being perverted by the police department. While the Latino population is being unfairly targeted, the city government continues to rake in the profits.

KPBS Evening Edition in San Diego will air a report related to the information in this article and interview John Carlos Frey about his investigation on Monday, March 12 at 6:30 PST. Click here for more information.

Crossposted from KPBS.