Report 2011-110 Summary - February 2012

Office of Traffic Safety: Although It Exercises Limited Oversight of Sobriety Checkpoints, Law Enforcement Agencies Have Complied With Applicable Standards


Our review of the Office of Traffic Safety's (OTS) oversight of grants it provides for sobriety checkpoints (checkpoints), highlighted the following:


The mission of the Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) is to effectively and efficiently administer traffic safety grant funds to reduce traffic deaths, injuries, and economic losses. OTS awards traffic safety grants to local law enforcement and state agencies, such as the Department of Public Health, the California Highway Patrol, and the University of California at Berkeley. OTS primarily uses federal funding to administer the traffic safety program by making grants available to local and state agencies for programs to enforce traffic laws and educate the public about traffic safety. Examples of OTS-funded grant activities include conducting sobriety checkpoints (checkpoints) and serving warrants on drivers with multiple driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol offenses. According to its review, OTS grantees reported conducting 2,562 checkpoints and claimed $16.8 million in overtime expenditures between October 2009 and September 2010.

No federal or state statutes or regulations exist governing the operation of checkpoints. However, a set of guidelines resulted from the California Supreme Court's (court) decision in Ingersoll v. Palmer (Ingersoll guidelines), a case which considered whether a checkpoint violated state and federal constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. For example, one of the characteristics that made the checkpoint valid included having a neutral formula for screening vehicles—every fifth vehicle passing through the checkpoint was stopped—so that drivers would not be subject to the unrestricted discretion of the officers operating the checkpoint.

Federal regulation and state law require that OTS produce an Annual Performance Report (annual report), which contains information on various traffic safety statistics, including fatality statistics on passengers not using seat belts and fatalities from alcohol-impaired driving. OTS also provides information on OTS-funded checkpoints, including the number of vehicles passing through checkpoints, the number of drivers screened, and the number of arrests for drug- and alcohol-related offenses. These statistics show that checkpoints more often result in citations for unlicensed motorists or for those with suspended or revoked driver's licenses than for alcohol-related offenses. For example, OTS reported that between October 2009 and September 2010 the 2,562 checkpoints administered by law enforcement resulted in nearly 28,000 citations to unlicensed motorists while there were approximately 7,000 arrests for driving under the influence. However, such statistics do not suggest that these checkpoints were performed improperly or are not achieving their intended outcomes. As noted in the court's ruling and as explained by OTS's management, a key component of a checkpoint is that it provides a publicized deterrent to alcohol-impaired driving. Nevertheless, these statistics should be viewed with some caution since OTS's grantees self-report this information and it is not verified for accuracy. Neither state law nor federal regulation expressly requires that checkpoint data be included in OTS's annual report. According to the assistant director of operations, OTS does not verify the checkpoint information because it is not required, and doing so would be overly burdensome on its staff. As a result of our audit, OTS began disclosing in its 2011 annual report that its checkpoint data was self-reported by its grantees and was unverified.

Since no federal statutes or regulations define how law enforcement should operate checkpoints, we did not expect OTS to systematically monitor whether its grantees comply with the Ingersoll guidelines. In fact, OTS does not explicitly refer to these guidelines in agreements with its grantees. Nevertheless, our review found that OTS does perform such monitoring on a limited and informal basis. OTS uses two retired police officers (law enforcement liaisons) to witness grantees' execution of checkpoints and to report their findings to the OTS director. One of the law enforcement liaisons we spoke with indicated that he had visited at least 24 checkpoints between January 2007 and September 2011. The other law enforcement liaison asserted that he had visited nine checkpoints between September 2010 and September 2011. According to OTS, the results of these reviews and a survey of law enforcement agencies suggest that the court's checkpoint guidelines are being followed.

Although we were unable to observe the checkpoints as they happened, we reviewed the documentation related to five checkpoints conducted by different law enforcement agencies in 2010 and found that each could reasonably demonstrate compliance with the Ingersoll guidelines. For example, each law enforcement agency provided either checkpoint-planning documents or policies demonstrating that it had practices to limit the discretion of field officers by following a neutral formula for screening vehicles. At the Oakland Police Department checkpoint, for instance, the commanding officer initially directed every fifth car for screening but retained discretion to alter intervals, directing more vehicles for screening during low traffic periods. As the checkpoint progressed, we noted that the Oakland Police Department periodically changed the interval to every third car or every 10th car.

OTS grantees operate checkpoints using federal funds and may use any revenue derived from these checkpoints, such as fines from citations and fees from towing and storing vehicles, without restriction under federal requirements. Our review of documentation from five checkpoints found that law enforcement agencies charge different amounts for releasing towed vehicles to the registered owners or their designated agents (release fees). In addition to charging vehicle release fees, some police departments or cities we reviewed receive other revenue from vehicles impounded at checkpoints. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department collects 7 percent of all gross revenue earned by tow contractors for police-related tows.


If the Legislature desires to receive periodic information on whether law enforcement agencies comply with existing sobriety checkpoint guidelines across the State, it should consider amending state law to require OTS to evaluate and include this information in its annual report. Such an amendment should also require OTS to recommend statutory changes if it identifies widespread problems at checkpoints.


OTS agrees with the audit report's conclusions.