SACRAMENTO — A week after Nora Ramos gave birth by Caesarean section, she found herself walking five miles home with her husband and four children.
On their way from the hospital in Modesto, the family had been stopped at a DUI checkpoint. Ramos' husband, who had been driving because his wife was dizzy from morphine, did not have a license, and police impounded their car.
That was four years ago. Today, Ramos is joining civil liberties groups and those advocating for minority rights, who say dozens of sobriety checkpoints throughout California have been used to generate impoundment fees rather than arrest drunken drivers.
They support a proposed law from Democratic state Assemblyman Michael Allen that aims to restrict the inspections to their intended purpose of stopping drunken driving.
"Yes, I understand, if they are drunk drivers, grab them, throw them in jail," said Ramos, who is 33. "But what about people who have nothing to do with that?"
Allen, from Santa Rosa, said cities and police have strayed from the original mission of checkpoints, increasingly using them to seize vehicles.
Impoundments increased 53 percent statewide between 2007 and 2009, according to his bill, AB1389. It says that in many cities, the ratio of impoundments to DUI arrests is 20 to 1.
Jeannette Zanipatin, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says the checkpoints target minorities and the poor, among them illegal immigrants who cannot legally obtain driver's licenses.
"There's less resistance, there aren't advocates, there's no recourse for these people," she said.
The problem, according to Allen, is that many drivers and their families end up stranded once their vehicles are hauled off. Ultimately, they also forfeit the vehicles because they can't afford the impoundment fees, which can be thousands of dollars. That includes Ramos, who says her husband lost his construction job along with the family car.
"The idea that people lose their livelihoods because they can't have family come help them doesn't make sense to me," Allen said. "It seems cruel and heartless."
Zanipatin's group, which is among more than 20 that officially back Allen's bill, said cities and police misuse the checkpoints to make money.
"It's a way for them to generate revenue, easy revenue that goes unchallenged," Zanipatin said.
Multiple law enforcement agencies have denied that departments abuse checkpoints, including the California Police Chiefs Association.
"DUI checkpoints are exclusively about safety," the association's president, David L. Maggard, Jr., said in an e-mail.
Allen said some cities do treat the checkpoints as a way to raise revenue, but his priority is the effect on drivers. A 2005 federal court case prohibits officers from confiscating vehicles if they can be moved to a safe place or picked up by a licensed driver, such as a relative.
Some cities don't abide by the legal precedent, so AB1389 seeks to write that into law to avoid uncertainty.
Allen's bill also would codify another court ruling, this one in California. Decided in 1987, the state Supreme Court case requires officers to conduct their checkpoints on roads that already have a high rate of DUI arrests or accidents, and then give advance notice of the location.