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On Midday Edition we take a closer look at these allegations against the City of Escondido.

March 12, 2012 1:22 p.m.

GUESTS

Jim Maher, Chief of Police, City of Escondido

John Carlos Frey, Freelance Investigative Journalist/Documentary Filmmaker

Cynthia Buiza, Policy Director, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties,

Related Story: Escondido Police Under Fire

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Read Transcript

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, DUI checkpoints in California especially those in Escondido are the focus of two new reports. One will be published in the progressive magazine, the nation, and alleges misuse of state funds by Escondido authorities. The other is by the American civil liberties union. Investigative reporter, John Carlos Frey, whose article appears in the nation magazine. Welcome to the show.

FREY: Pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Escondido police chief, Jim Maher with us, welcome back.

MAHER: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Cynthia Buiza, is policy director of the ACLU of San Diego and imperial counties. Welcome to the show.

BUIZA: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: John, your story starts out with a vignette from a DUI checkpoint in Escondido in the year 2010. Tell us what happens to the woman in your story, Leticia.

FREY: Leticia went through what was told to me a DUI checkpoint at 9:30†AM in Escondido, and as a result of not having a driver's license, she was subsequently deported by immigration officials. She had her 4-year-old car with her, and children who still live in Escondido. She lives in Tijuana now.

CAVANAUGH: And she was found to be an unlicensed driver, and handcuffs were put on her, and she was taken in front of her daughter, that's all in your article as well.

FREY: That is correct.

CAVANAUGH: Why do you say that these DUI checkpoints operate at immigration checkpoints?

FREY: According to the cheese of police himself, he's told me that immigration officials are on call during the DUI checkpoints. If someone comes through the DUI checkpoints and is unlicensed, they will have a background check done on them. And if I.C.E. wants this individual, if there are charges against this individual, they am deport the person.

CAVANAUGH: And this stems from the unprecedented, lines between the Escondido police and immigration and customs enforcement, right?

FREY: It's not necessarily from the alliance, there are municipalities who also call I.C.E. at checkpoints. It was interesting to me that DUI is really about impaired driver, about drunk drivers, unlicensed drivers. It has nothing to do about immigration, yet immigration is being checkeded at this particular checkpoint.

CAVANAUGH: Chief mahar, have you seen this article?

MAHER: I have. I read it this morning.

CAVANAUGH: So could what happened to Letcia at the stop in 2010 still happen today?

MAHER: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely.

MAHER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Even though there is the prosecutorial discretion that many agencies perhaps might show to someone in that situation who is not necessarily having any conviction or former illegalities?

MAHER: Actually this has nothing to do with prosecutorial discretion. If you have a minute, I'll clear up some of the false statements that are in the story, and even what John just said. This actually occurred in 2008, I know he says Letcia is a, you know, a false name. It's kind of a slap in the face. In Escondido, we have an outreach liaison specifically for immigration policy, and she worked a lot with John to prepare this story and this video. So he chose her first name as the name of the victim.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MAHER: But give me just a second to explain. This Czech point, unlicensed driver, a want and it is warrants check was run on her, which is standard for law enforcement throughout the state, and I would hope throughout the country. When you stop somebody for a citation or detain them for suspicion or whatever, it's a No.†1 thing a law enforcement officer will do. This lady came back with a notice that she was an I.C.E. fugitive. That she was wanted by I.C.E.. I've heard the criticism for some of the people John mentioned that we should have called I.C.E. and asked them why they wanted her, and my feeling is when another law enforcement agency has a reason to put an I.C.E. fugitive notice in local databases, that anybody police officer, not just Escondido would get, then of course we're going to make the call. Because that's what the notice said.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MAHER: We called I.C.E., they said yes, she had been ordered out of the country by a federal judge. I don't know what her criminal history was. It was to me -- I wasn't there, of course, but the point was that she had been ordered out of the country by the federal judge, I.C.E. wanted her, so we turned her over to I.C.E..

CAVANAUGH: One of the criticisms in John's article is that Escondido police do demand to see driver's licenses at these DUI checkpoints when the state specifically says you don't have to ask for a license.

MAHER: Well, I don't know if the does or doesn't. They certainly make it very clear that they're funding DUI/driver's license checkpoints, and Escondido is certainly not alone in checking for both DUI and driver's license.

CAVANAUGH: Don't you say in your article that the idea of handing over a license at a DUI checkpoint is not state mandated?

FREY: I’m happy to provide the chief with the notice I received from the office of traffic safety saying there is no requirement for a police agency to ask for a driver's license. It is recommended but they will not suffer any penalty. The grantees will still receive their money if they indeed not to check for a driver's license.

CAVANAUGH: Let me move onto the most damning part of your report.

MAHER: Can I just answer that?

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah.

MAHER: The bottom line is, if they recommend it doesn't matter. Unless the driving is a hazard to our roads, so any competent law enforcement agency during a DUI checkpoint will also check for driver's license. It's standard, so making that into an Escondido criticism is thought flat wrong.

FREY: But I have just to rebut that, I actually have an officer by the name of Chris Nguyen to says directly they won't get the grant unless they check for a driver's license. And that's false.

CAVANAUGH: Let me move onto the most damning part of your report, John. It focuses on how Escondido used the money the state gave it for conducting DUI checkpoints and allegations that the city made money on impounding vehicles from those stops. Can you explain the allegations that you make in your report?

FREY: If they were allegations, I think that it would be a different story. These are facts. These are directly from Escondido's spreadsheets from their own tow contracts and taking a look at the law. I have asked the city repeatedly for documents to substantiate my claims here, they have provided me with no documentation. The city of Escondido reduced their impound fees from $180 to $100 recently because they wanted to reduce the impound fee at OTS-funded checkpoints. The checkpoints that the state runs or gives money to Escondido to run underwrites all the officers' pay. So why are you paying an exposure tent impound fee? That fee should be reduced. Escondido has agreed to reduce that impound fee, but they won't tell me when and why. If we take a look at the tow contracts, just a few years ago, they were $87,000 for an entire year for all the tow companies in Escondido. Today, there are $450,000. By state law, the city of Escondido has to justify why they charge so much. They actually have to tell us, the public, what they're charging for. They're not supposed to charge whatever they want. They have to charge what it costs them to run. Also on top of that, we have money coming in from the state, which is not included in some of these impound fees and what they charge the tow companies. So I've received the spreadsheets. We have laborer charges that have increased by 600% over the period of a couple years. The city of Escondido is charging tow companies for arresting during the towing of cars according to the spreadsheets. They say that pon% of all the cars towed in Escondido end up in an arrest. The charges go on and on. They're billing for bullet-proof vests, for wear and tear on cars, walkie-talkies, cellphones, everything that has nothing to do with the actual impounding of vehicles.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get a response from chief Maher.

MAHER: Where do I start? First off, our fee for impounds is $180, and it has been that for a while, and that's based on cost estimates made through our traffic lieutenant and our finance department. A couple years ago, it occurred to me that we were charging the same amount at checkpoints as we were for all the other impounds. And so I asked them to take away the cost that we were getting reimbursed from the state, and whatever that cost we had, lower it. That's why I lowered it from $180 to $100. And I would challenge John to find other agencies that have taken that step. I think other agencies charge the same they do on the street as they do for a checkpoint. Having said that, I can't play with all the numbers that John throws out. I know that we have not increased our cost 600% or whatever it was. I do know that we have a full cost recovery program, that the costs that we estimated was $470,000, somewhere in there, and we collect $450,000. So we're not trying to create money. In fact, the police don't want to be involved in the revenue sources. I don't want the officers to be at all interested in whether or not a tow is going to generate revenue from the safety. The whole point is safety.

CAVANAUGH: So it's your contention that the police department in Escondido and indeed the city of Escondido is not making money from these DUI checkpoints?

MAHER: Well, if they are or not. I do know that they have to justify the costs, just like when you come in to get a copy of a police report.

CAVANAUGH: Making a profit, let me put it more clearly.

MAHER: It wouldn't be a profit. Just like when you get a police report, there's a cost for that, and it has to be weighed by the cost it took for the clerk to look it up, to find it, to make the copies, etc. So if you want to call that a profit, fine, we'd pay the clerk anyhow. But that is how state law is. You have to justify your costs.

CAVANAUGH: I'm absolutely with you there. There are so many numbers here that people can look at on the website in the article in tshe nation. There's one that stuck at out at me though, the laborer time for towing expanded in police accounts last year from 33 minutes a few years ago, to 187 minutes. So does it really take three hours for your department to tow a car?

MAHER: No. But I want to correct that. I don't think it was ever 33 minutes. I'm not sure where that number comes from. But I do have a list here of how we determine it. And it has to do with the lieutenant and sergeant that oversee the time for the officer just to tow it, the time for a second officer Fthere's an arrest involved, which we don't charge for that of course every time, dispatcher records. We have an employee whose job is to process the impounds, and then of course we do get to expense out the police equipment involved.

CAVANAUGH: Now, John, a new state law makes it illegal to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers at DUI checkpoints. How does this change your story?

FREY: I think that profit taking from the city of Escondido will be lessened. We no longer have at a DUI Czech point, the ability for the police department to take a car and automatically offer a 30-day impound to the unlicensed driver, that driver now has the option to call someone who has a driver's license and have them drive the vehicle away without that storage fee. Back to these laborer charges, I, with I could make these numbers up. These are specific from actual contracts from the city of Escondido that I have obtained through their own proper channels of getting these documents, and I have the document in front of me. I'm happy to share it with the chief that says 33 minutes to tow a car, and in 2011, it takes one officer 45 minutes, another officer 90 minutes, record checks, 15 minutes times three, a sergeant, 7.5 minutes. These are their own numbers, and all I've done is add them up.

CAVANAUGH: I'm sort of running out of time here, and I need to bring in our guest from the ACLU. Cynthia Guissa, from the ACLU, you're releasing a report and what has your report, it takes a critical look at these DUI checkpoints in Escondido, doesn't it?

MAHER: It does. And I'm not going to repeat some of the information that John already shared because we actually use some of that information in our report. But I'm going to describe what the report is all about. It ultimately explores the negative effects of Escondido's policies on low-income families. The impact on this in the community is general, it also calls out the city in terms of its use of checkpoints and impound policies for pursuing its anti-immigrant practices. And it offers finally recommendations on how these policies could be more effective and fair to everyone. Because I know our fundamental question as a civil rights organization, our question of Escondido and its leadership, is it possible for the city to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of everyone in the city?

CAVANAUGH: Is the ACLU contemplating a lawsuit against the city of Escondido?

MAHER: I can't comment on that. We don't have that conversation at the moment.

CAVANAUGH: But you are urging an independent audit; is that correct?

MAHER: We are encouraging an independent audit, encouraging more oversight of these policies and these practices. And in fact, when the report is released and you can look it up on our website later today, it details these very specific recommendations, but also how we can work with Escondido in pursuing those.

CAVANAUGH: And chief Maher, would you support an independent audit of the towing revenue?

MAHER: It wouldn't support it or not support it. It's not a concern of the police department. We do not make policies based on revenue.

CAVANAUGH: Let me say, despite the criticism that you're getting now, and that you have gotten, you remain proud of your association with I.C.E., in fact your department just received an award, right?

MAHER: , a national award.

CAVANAUGH: And what was that for again?

MAHER: It was for the partnership. And I think that needs to be explained a lot better. If you saw the proposal for John's story, it was blatantly biased. It talked about coming down here and documenting the racism in the city of Escondido and the police department. If you go through this story he wrote, there's numerous facts that are distorted or just flat out false. For example, this argument that this is a ruse to catch illegal immigrants, if that was the case, how come in all these years, we've gotten that one female who had an I.C.E. fugitive deportation order, and John's own statement is that the vast majority of unlicensed drivers are undocumented immigrants, yet how is it that so few of them get turned over? The I.C.E. project is exactly the right policy that every law enforcement agency should have. We don't go after people who are just here illegally. We go after people that are here illegally and have been convicted of another crime. And we did share with John the numbers of people we arrested who had prior convictions for DUI or for sex offenses, burglary, etc. And the last point I want to make is that we are actually in the middle of the county from the number of checkpoints we do. And we have a much more restrictive policy on picking up people that are just illegal than most other agencies.

CAVANAUGH: I want to -- I appreciate that. I want to go -- we're so close on time. I just want to go to John for your response.

FREY: Certainly. It's interesting that the chief wants to make what I have here in the article about me. This is not about me. This is about facts. This is about dollar amounts on pieces of paper that come from the city of Escondido. Other facts. The city of Escondido has not given me documents that I have requested. Over and over and again. Public records that are privy to the public, and to me. They told me that there were no documents about that 2007 program where they wanted to start their own tow company. Vithose documents. When did they reduce that $180 fee? They said the documents do not exist. I do not have the recent contracts which I am privy to for the tow companies that exist right now. So if this is about me, I'm ask the chief to be transparent. Give me the documents I've requested

MAHER: I'm glad he brought that up. It's not about John, it's just about his blatant lack of journalism ethics when he wrote this.

CAVANAUGH: Will you give him the documents?

MAHER: Well, I don't know what documents that we haven't given him. It's interesting. We have a phone relationship, John and I, and my outreach liasson, and there's infer been a call from him complaining about this. &%F0

The $180 to $100, there is no documentation.

CAVANAUGH: I have to end it here.

MAHER: About the tow yard, the proposal was brought up by a low-level police employee, it was supported by one council member, the majority of the council including -- and myself did not support that.

CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there, chief, I'm so sorry. We just really have to. Perhaps we can do a second version of this, and clear up some of the issues that we've raised. I'd like to thank my guests so much, investigative reporter John Carlos Frey, Escondido police chief, Jim Maher, and Cynthia guissa of the ACLU. Thank you all.

FREY: Thank you.

MAHER: Pronounced my name right twice, thank you.