Monday, October 6, 2008


La Malinche

It was a Friday and my big brother Lalo and I were going to Lopez’s birthday party at our local jazz and fondue bar, the Hip Kitty. We were driving down Foothill Blvd. when we saw a crop of blindingly bright lights. Several cars were pulled over and there was a long table set up in front of a portable trailer. The place was infested with cops. Lalo looked over at me and I scanned his face, wondering what we were going to do. He calmly pulled into the checkpoint and the white male police officer leaned in to talk to us.

“This is a DUI and license checkpoint. Can I see your driver’s license?” the police officer asked.

Lalo looked him in his blue eyes and told him steadily, “Actually officer, this is only a DUI checkpoint, and drivers don’t have to show their licenses unless it is publicized to be a license checkpoint.”

The officer looked stunned. He repeated again, “This is a DUI and license checkpoint. Let me see your license.”

Lalo then informed him that officers at DUI checkpoints are only supposed to check if drivers appear impaired. The officer looked irritated.

“Do you want to speak with the sheriff?” he asked Lalo.

“I’d be happy to.” Lalo replied. The officer didn’t appear to believe what he was hearing.

“You want to speak with the sheriff?” he repeated.

“Yes, I’d be happy to.” Lalo said again.

The officer sighed and said “Okay. Pull over there by the other cars.” So, we pulled over and waited for the sheriff.

Something I haven’t mentioned is that we knew that there would be a checkpoint in that place and at that time. See, my brother and I are activists, and lately in our community (the Ontario-Pomona-Claremont-Upland area) we have noticed that there have been a lot of checkpoints. DUI checkpoints, or sobriety checkpoints as they are often called, are meant to deter drunk driving and catch drivers who are under the influence. However, checkpoints that are located in areas with high populations of people of color and/or are conducted in the morning, afternoon, and early evening are not looking for people leaving bars drunk; they are looking for undocumented people.

Lalo had been reading up on the legal aspect of this issue for awhile and in the course of his research he had found that there are two different kinds of checkpoints: DUI checkpoints and DUI and license checkpoints. Whatever kind of checkpoint it is, it must be announced through the press and there must be signs telling you what it is. This checkpoint we were sitting at was not supposed to be for licenses and none of the signs indicated that it was.

Lalo and I talked about the checkpoints a lot:

“What about the fourth amendment?” I had asked him previously.

“Michigan v. Sitz.” he had replied.

The Fourth Amendment is the one that safeguards people against unreasonable search and seizure. Considering the fact that DUI checkpoints garner about 100 cars each which are towed away for various reasons (only about 3% of which are DUI related), the Fourth Amendment appears to be meaningless as of late. That’s where Sitz came in. In 1990 a group of Michigan residents got pissed and sued Michigan police for violation of their civil liberties according to the Fourth Amendment and the Michigan Court decided that they were right. However, the police took it to the Supreme Court who decided that in this case, the public benefit of getting drunk driver’s off the road surpassed what they considered to be the smaller issue of the violation of the civil liberties of the people and actually ruled DUI checkpoints constitutional, as long as they stick to strict guidelines.

Another officer came over to the car and asked Lalo to step out of the vehicle. He grabbed his copy of the bill of rights with the Fourth Amendment highlighted and walked over to the long table. The police were swarming around him and one of them searched him. I watched him speak to an officer on the other side of the table and at one point he lifted the paper he had grabbed and began to read it. The next thing I knew, he was being handcuffed and taken away.

See, the law is funny. So much of what happens is really up to the officer’s discretion, and no officer wants some civilian telling him how he is supposed to do his job. Lalo was put in a holding cell with a $10,000 bail for delaying a police procedure. When the white male officer who originally stopped us came back to the car to tell me they had arrested Lalo, he just kept saying that he should have just shown his license. I told him that my brother was aware of his rights, as we all should be, and asked if I could leave. He looked nervous when he asked me, “Can I see your license?” His face was priceless.

Some of the guidelines that police are supposed to follow are that they have to announce the checkpoints, they have to either stop every car or every nth car (ex: 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc.), they have to also educate the public about drunk driving, they can’t pull someone over just for avoiding a checkpoint, and, if the checkpoint is solely for DUIs, they are only supposed to stop you long enough to determine sobriety. Also, according to the Attorney General if it is a combination DUI and License checkpoint there must be advanced notice in the press and signs at the location.

I ended up showing that cop my license and going to the Hip Kitty. After a few hours, they let Lalo go without bail and I picked him up, but he still has a court date to go to in October. Our hope is to get the criminal charges dropped and sue the police, but we don’t really know what is going to happen. See, Lalo is lucky enough to have a license. But many people do not have licenses and when the police do these checkpoints and ask for licenses, they are really targeting the people unable to receive them, the undocumented.

I probably don’t have to explain the exploitation and oppression that undocumented people have to endure: the lack of financial aid for college, the ICE raids, deportations, detentions, imprisonment, racism and terrorizing by White America. These checkpoints are just one more tactic for the police to find and scare them. If the true reason that the checkpoints are done is to find drunk drivers, then why is the immigrant community so disproportionately affected? And why are only 5 or less out of 100 cars taken for DUI related reasons? Why are the police asking for licenses at non-license checkpoints? And why are not all cars stopped?

I think we know the answers to these questions. So, let’s do something!

Here is a list of things we can do:

1. Check the Crime and Public Safety section of your local paper for checkpoints, set up a Google alert, or sign up for text message alerts on Then, when you find out where the next checkpoint will be, let people know! Make a listserv, post a bulletin, send text messages, make announcements at church, organization meetings or any other groups. My friend’s dad even keeps a sign in his trunk to place around checkpoints so people know where they are. Be creative!

2. Avoid the checkpoints. Technically they are not supposed to pull you over just for avoiding them. That doesn’t mean that they won’t or that they can’t make up an excuse.

Remember, driving without a license is not necessarily an arrestable offense.

1. California Vehicle Code Section 14602.6 says that if a police officer determines a person is driving without a license, or the license was revoked or suspended, the person’s vehicle “shall be impounded for 30 days.”

2. However, there is an appeals court ruling that says they are supposed to give you 30 minutes time to call a licensed driver.

3. Keep in mind, a lot is up to an officer’s discretion, and the police do not like when you tell them about the law.

Also, know your rights:

1. If you end up getting stopped at a checkpoint, be sober and have a driver’s license.

2. If you do not have a license, ask the officer(s) if you can call a licensed driver to come drive your car home.

3. Take pictures or otherwise document the conditions of the checkpoint. Your attorney may be able to use this in your defense. ¶

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