DUI sobriety checkpoints, also known as roadblocks, are one of those things that sound good until you think it through. No one wants drunk drivers on the road. But no one wants texters or people eating lunch on the road, either, which are even more dangerous. In order to catch the latter two, it would be necessary to set up video cameras either alongside the road or inside cars. Every year, several states that prohibit DUI checkpoints consider passing legislation to permit them. These laws are usually championed by Democrats.
Motorists engage in secondary behavior during approximately half of their time on the road. Hands-free mobile phone conversations are legal all around the country, but slow reaction times by a significant 26.5 percent, according to a study from the UK. Eating slows reaction times by up to 44 percent. Drivers who text slow their reaction times by 37.4 percent. In contrast, drivers at the legal limit for alcohol in the UK, which is .08 BAC, only demonstrated a 12.5 percent increase in reaction time. The National Highway Administration finds this disparity to be even greater, surmising that driving a vehicle while texting is six times more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.
This becomes even more troublesome when it is taken into consideration that some states don’t require a minimum BAC level for a DUI; the violation level is “impaired to the slightest degree.” Someone who blows a .03 BAC level may be perfectly capable of driving safely, but the laws as drafted in many states do not distinguish. If caught at a DUI checkpoint, even though the driver has not made a single driving error, the driver can likely expect to be fully prosecuted with little chance of escaping the draconian consequences of a DUI conviction.
There are state laws that prohibit “distracted driving,” but it is difficult for law enforcement officers to see people engaging in texting, eating or similar activities, especially if they have tinted windows or there is poor weather. By the time they are stopped at a checkpoint, they can easily hide the offending behavior. The penalties for distracted driving are merely a slap on the wrist that won’t follow you around; most states have penalties ranging from $30 to $200.
The penalties for drunk driving are severe, and in the Internet age, will likely torpedo someone’s career forever. Do a Google search on someone’s name who has a recent DUI conviction, and the DUI conviction probably appears in the first results of the search. The costs and fees imposed on a DUI offender, even a first-time offender, are draconian. Their license is suspended for at least a month, which greatly hampers their ability to get to work or anywhere else. Many states require offenders to install a costly ignition interlock device on their car, at their own expense. There may be court-mandated community service, participation in costly drunk-driving education programs, and at least one day in jail. Their car insurance rates skyrocket and many schools will not give a scholarship to someone with a DUI conviction.
Any honest criminal defense attorney will tell you that you have little to no chance of beating a DUI charge. The deck is so stacked against offenders due to blood or breathalyzer testing.
The costs of enforcing DUI checkpoints are staggering. The state of California spends $12 million on them. A single checkpoint runs taxpayers $8,000 to $10,000. Many of the checkpoints are staffed by officers working overtime, which increases the cost.
A newspaper investigation a few years ago in Arizona found that checkpoints rarely catch anyone. Police officers stopped 46,000 drivers between 2005 and 2007, but only 75 stops resulted in convictions. Joe St. Louis, an Arizona attorney who makes a living representing DUI offenders, told the Arizona Daily Star, "It's just crazy. If you stop people at random, it's not an efficient use of your time or of taxpayer dollars.” St. Louis thinks since police are trained to spot drunk drivers, they would be more effective patrolling than sitting passively at checkpoints.
A formal study was performed analyzing Maryland’s DUI checkpoint program, and concluded, “there is no evidence to indicate that this campaign, which involves a number of sobriety checkpoints and media activities to promote these efforts, has had any impact on public perceptions, driver behaviors, or alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and injuries.” Similarly, the FBI compared saturation patrols vs. DUI checkpoints, and concluded the former was more effective.
For every police officer who is stationed at a DUI checkpoint stopping vehicles, that is one less police officer available to look for really dangerous drunks driving the wrong way down the highway, or drivers weaving back and forth because they are texting, talking on their phone or eating.
Many government officials blatantly admit the DUI checkpoints aren’t there to catch drunk drivers, but to send a message to the community. There have been many high-profile DUI awareness campaigns over the years. Everyone is familiar with the phrase “don’t drink and drive.” These less expensive, less constitutionally-intrusive public awareness campaigns make more sense than DUI checkpoints.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1990 case Michigan v. Sitz that DUI checkpoints, despite their intrusion on civil liberties as a “seizure,” do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection from search and seizures. The decision permits law enforcement to randomly stop cars despite not having “reasonable suspicion.” In response to this decision, at least 10 states passed laws prohibiting DUI checkpoints. They include freedom-loving states like Texas, Wyoming and Idaho. Alaska hasn’t passed a law banning checkpoints, but has simply never implemented them.
Legislators in Washington state are considering this fall whether to allow checkpoints. So far, efforts to pass DUI checkpoint laws have failed due to strict privacy provisions in the state constitution. Doug Honig, of the ACLU of Washington state, emphasizes the constitutional privacy concerns, "In our society, if you're out and about on the highway and you aren't doing anything wrong, law enforcement shouldn't be stopping you," Honig said. "They should have to have individual suspicion that you are doing something wrong and not engaging in fishing expeditions."
Officer Gregory I. Green of D.C. police, who represents the police union, told The Washington Post, "That's an invasion of privacy, demanding information from a citizen and putting that in a database.” Similarly, James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based policy and civil liberties organization, told the Post checkpoints go too far. "It is pretty clear they're basically trying to track people and gather information about people's whereabouts."
Besides the disturbing constitutional implications, the laws aren’t fair. While drunk driving is a terrible thing, it makes no sense to pass draconian, privacy-invading laws that target drunk driving while not targeting more dangerous behaviors. Legislators need to stop thinking like overly emotional drunks, and start thinking about treating people equally and protecting our constitutional right to privacy.
What it comes down to is follow the money. Powerful lobbyists are obtaining millions of dollars in profits for companies that manufacture ignition locks, breathalyzers and blood-testing equipment. Similarly, slick lobbyists for the wireless phone industry have carved out exceptions for hands-free wireless phone conversations while driving. It has nothing to do with safety, or the more dangerous types of distracted driving would be targeted.
Former Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Michigan v. Sitz that DUI checkpoints are “necessary” and “effective.” Since it’s now clear they aren’t, perhaps it’s time to revisit this opinion.