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Friday, October 24, 2008
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Sobriety Checkpoints Are Not the Answer

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a continuing series called "Wasted in Wisconsin" which is looking at the culture of drinking in the state, as well as the problem of drunk driving.  Today's article is focusing on "sobriety checkpoints" as a possible solution.  The article points out that Wisconsin is one of only 12 states that legally forbids the use of sobriety checkpoints.  Governor Doyle, as well as various groups like MADD would like to see this changed:

Gov. Jim Doyle called Thursday for tougher laws to fight drunken driving - including legalizing roadside sobriety checkpoints in Wisconsin.

"Most of us are in much more danger from a drunk driver than we are from a person that is going to break into our house," he said. "I don't think we should have a ban (on checkpoints)... I think it can be a useful tool, used appropriately and in a limited way."

The Democratic governor said courts have set criteria for the constitutionality of checkpoints. Any new Wisconsin law would have to follow those guidelines, ensuring stops are not made in a discriminatory fashion, he said.
Milwaukee County sheriff's deputies have been hampered by the checkpoint ban, said Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. Politicians should "stop dancing around the issue" and rescind the ban, he said.

This idea will do absolutely nothing to curb drunk driving in this state, and will hamper the rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches as guaranteed by the Constitution.  I'll cover both of these issues in more detail.

First, to their effectiveness.  While groups like MADD tout the effectiveness of DUI checkpoints, the fact is that drunk driving related deaths went down significantly year over year from about 1982 to 1993.  Much of that credit should go to groups like MADD which created large national education campaigns on the dangers of drunk driving.  In 1982, 3/5ths of all traffic deaths were alcohol related.  The first year in which they didn't go down was 1993, which is not long after the United States Supreme Court ruled that sobriety check points were legal.  They have leveled off since then (with minor up and down ticks every year).  It should be noted that these statistics are sometimes disputed because "alcohol related" does not mean "alcohol caused".  If anyone, even a passenger, had alcohol in their system, then it is used in that statistic depending on the state.

In fact, when comparing states that do have checkpoints with their counterparts that don't, and relating them to traffic deaths, there is little statistical difference in their effectiveness.  It should also be noted that Michigan, which originated the US Supreme Court case in question, is one of the 12 states that outlaw sobriety checkpoints, because after being remanded to the State Court, they ruled that they did not pass Constitutional muster in that state.  There is even some evidence that suggests that sobriety checkpoints have far lower effectiveness than roving patrols.  The manager for traffic safety of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation testified in their State Supreme Court to their ineffectiveness:

Mr. Rader testified that, based upon statistics available for several Pennsylvania counties during the years 1999-2001, approximately 0.71 percent of all drivers stopped at sobriety checkpoints were charged with DUI; he noted additionally that this is relatively close to the national average of 1.0 percent. Furthermore, Mr. Rader confirmed that, during the 1999-2001 period, the total number of law enforcement manpower-hours expended per DUI arrest at sobriety checkpoints was 22.84, and the total number of manpower-hours per arrest -- including both law enforcement and administrative personnel -- was 28.77. By comparison, 18.82 manpower-hours were required for each DUI arrest stemming from a roving patrol, and 7.69 percent of all drivers stopped by such patrols were charged with DUI.

In Pennsylvania, roving patrols are ten times more effective at stopping drunk drivers!  In Arizona, they had no effectiveness when reinstated after 10 years of not being used.  Supporters still touted them as being "educational" for people since everyone stopped was handed a pamphlet on drunk driving.  One Sherriff had the audacity to say that it was "good they were arresting so few people."  It's the perfect catch 22.  When a state doesn't have sobriety check points, we need them to catch drunk drivers.  When drunk drivers aren't caught at sobriety checkpoints, then that is a show of their effectiveness.  Under what conditions then would they not be found useful?  It's totally bogus.

In fact, there is evidence that traffic deaths may increase due to these checkpoints because the worst of the drunk drivers (those who are seriously impaired with high BAC levels) avoid the checkpoints when spotted (and often because their locations are advertised in the paper), while those who have had a drink or two continue to go through, because they don't feel impaired.  Many of these drivers have a BAC below the .08 legal limit, but that doesn't stop some people from being arrested.  If there is any "impairment" as judged purely at the discretion of the officer, and your BAC is above .01 then you could be arrested.  Even the founder of MADD sees this as neo-prohibition and thinks it's going too far:

Lightner has moved on from MADD, and since then has protested the shift from attacking drunk driving to attacking drinking in general. "I worry that the movement I helped create has lost direction," she told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1992. BAC legislation, she said, "ignores the real core of the problem....If we really want to save lives, let's go after the most dangerous drivers on the road." Lightner said MADD has become an organization far more "neoprohibitionist" than she had envisioned. "I didn't start MADD to deal with alcohol," she said. "I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving."

But if they aren't effective, then why do so many police organizations, like the Milwaukee County Sherriff want them?  Well, the reality is that the "court protections" are either largely ignored, of other court decisions have increasingly allowed police to search for other things while they are checking your sobriety... and sometimes without even that pretense.  In California, just one checkpoint netted $300,000 in tickets and fees, not for drunk driving, but for invalid licenses.  They end up turning into police dragnets for all sorts of non-alcohol related stops and are seen as cash cows for police:

For years, DUI checkpoints have proven an effective way to catch drunken drivers and prevent others from getting behind the wheel, but what some police agencies are now using those checkpoints for and who is being targeted is sparking a growing controversy. The concern is that police are not only using the checkpoints as a way to enforce other laws but also as a way to make money — especially since cities such as Sacramento make $70 every time they impound a car at a DUI checkpoint, even if that car’s driver was not suspected of drinking and driving.
At issue is whether police agencies are misusing taxpayer money by using state DUI grant money as an opportunity to crack down on a host of other laws…. "It’s misrepresentation. It’s almost a fraudulent use of resources," state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said.
Records show that at the Sacramento Police Department’s last five DUI checkpoints, officers arrested 22 suspected drunken drivers. But they also wrote 315 citations and impounded 259 vehicles belonging to people arrested for driving without a license or driving on a suspended license. Sacramento’s police chief defends the use of DUI checkpoints beyond the bounds of just cracking down on suspected drunken drivers.

So despite the supposed court protections granted, state laws often times still don't reflect them and courts rarely protect your rights after the fact.  The reality is that the Wisconsin State law specifically prohibiting their use is one of the few things protecting your rights, and we need to keep it in place.

I am not a fan of drunk driving by any means.  In fact, I think that increased penalties for those who are found guilty of drunk driving multiple times are long overdue.  I would even think that a law which increases penalties for those who are found guilt fo drunk driving and have a BAC over .15 might be useful.  Over half of all alcohol related fatalities occur when the driver has a BAC over .15.  However, we need to take effective measures to combat drunk driving, while at the same time not harassing safe drivers or taking away their Constitutionally guaranteed rights.  Sobriety checkpoints are neither effective, nor are they Constitutionally sound.

# Posted at 12:36 PM by Nick  |  Comment Feed Link 1 Comment  |  No Trackbacks

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Sunday, October 26, 2008 11:08:58 AM (Central Daylight Time, UTC-05:00)
Buried in there is another part of the growing police state where they want to allow the cops to pull you over for simply not wearing a seat belt. As a libertarian conservative, I stopped wearing mine other than on the highways when the nannies said I had to or I'd have to go to bed without supper.

The prize for increasing the Gestapo presence in Wisconsin? More federal dollars they can spend anyway they choose.
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