At one DUI checkpoint in Oakland, police aren't just looking to see if drivers are drunk. They are also looking to see if the drivers have a license. On one particular night, 77 unlicensed drivers were cited; there were no drunk drivers. In most cities no license means your car will be towed and impounded.
"It's a revenue generator, there's no question," says investigative reporter Ryan Gabrielson. "We found a huge disparity in the number of DUI arrests that they are making at these sobriety of checkpoints and the number of cars they are impounding for people not having a drivers license."
Gabrielson is an investigative reporting fellow at the University of California. He looked at data from DUI and license checkpoints all over the state.
"We found that in some jurisdictions, some municipalities where they will average 60 vehicles seized at a checkpoint for every one DUI arrest," says Gabrielson.
In Oakland, most cars are held overnight, but in many other cities, state law allows the car to be held for 30 days. The car will sit at a tow lot, accruing daily impound fees, and local fines.
"These total $1,500 to $2,000 to as high as $4,000 for people to retrieve their cars," says Gabrielson.
Many people never pick them up and cities generally sell those cars at auctions providing a steady source of income.
"I think it's very important to understand that driving without a license carries a very high risk," says David Ragland.
Ragland is with SafeTREC, the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at UC Berkeley. SafeTREC helps administer checkpoints with federal grants. Ragland says the 30-day hold actually keeps our roads safer.
"About 20 percent of all the fatalities, traffic fatalities in the Unites States, involve at least one driver without a valid license," says Ragland.
Still, there are those who say, targeting unlicensed drivers unfairly singles out poor and undocumented immigrants.
One man at the checkpoint said he had a license, but it was expired. His car was towed. He told ABC7 he believes police came to the prominently Latino Fruitvale District in Oakland because they know many immigrants don't have licenses.
Oakland police deny they are targeting anyone, they say checkpoints are random, and they're just enforcing the law.
"I find that offensive and I think we should stop that immediately," says Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, (D) Los Angeles.
Cedillo believes that law needs to be changed. He says undocumented immigrants should be allowed to get drivers licenses. In 1993, the state legislature voted that only legal residents can get one.
"All it did do was make our highways less safe and less secure," says Cedillo.
Cedillo says allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses would educate them on the rules of the road, making them more responsible drivers.
He says DUI checkpoints have turned into money making opportunities for cash strapped cities.
"To take those dollars and then use them in a dragnet to focus on immigrant communities, to take away their vehicles is a violation of the constitution," says Cedillo.
The constitutionality of checkpoints has been challenged repeatedly since their implementation, but the United States Supreme Court has said they are constitutional.
Written and produced by Ken Miguel