Colorado DUI checks also block basic rights
By David Harsanyi
Denver Post Staff Columnist
Drunken driving is no joke. As for sobriety roadblocks ... I'm not so sure.
This week, a Denver Post reader wrote in questioning the effectiveness of a "massive DUI checkpoint" in Arvada on Saturday.
The reader claimed there were close to 30 police officers - "a very conservative estimate" - stopping vehicles and questioning drivers. He wondered if it was a prudent way for taxpayers' dollars to be spent.
Clearly, anyone driving under the influence could have avoided the roadblock, the reader wrote, because "you could see the flashing lights about a mile away."
The writer might also have mentioned that roadblocks are an invasion of privacy; the cause of traffic, noise and pollution; and a tactic that overwhelmingly targets law-abiding citizens.
Sobriety roadblocks are also a neat way for police to avoid probable cause. (The Supreme Court has ruled that the Fourth Amendment can be circumvented as the threat of drunken driving outweighed the "slight" intrusion of roadblocks. I'm not a legal expert, but, boy, that sounds like a precariously slippery slope.)
Obviously, most of us are willing to surrender a certain level of freedom for a greater good. And no one can deny that drunken drivers are a scourge, killing an estimated 16,000 or so people nationwide every year.
So how many drivers were stopped at this particular roadblock? How many were charged? Has it helped?
Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, tells me that at a recent checkpoint, 4,000 cars were stopped. "From our point of view, that's 4,000 people contacted that understand that we take this very seriously."
The latest multijurisdictional DUI checkpoints in Jefferson County used 30 officers and arrested 11 people on DUI charges. The national average of drivers arrested at these sort of roadblocks has been estimated at 0.02 percent.
Who's to say that those 30 officers wouldn't have made 20 DUI arrests targeting only dangerous and erratic drivers instead of stopping everyone?
Apparently, that's not the point.
"Drunk drivers don't know when we're going to be out there," explains Kelley. "And if for one minute they stop and think, 'You know what. They just had a DUI checkpoint last weekend.' If they are affected in any way, that's a win. We are never going to be able to measure that."
Susan Medina, spokeswoman for the Arvada Police Department, has a similar take on these "events" - a soothing euphemism for roadblocks.
"One of the objectives in addition to potentially stopping folks is to provide a bit of education," Medina says. "We're hoping the presence of a number of officers will make people think twice about drinking and driving. If they are going out to a party or going out to dinner ... they have seen the DUI enforcement and they have a dialogue or a discussion and they make a determination. Not only will they drink moderately or they may not even drink at all. For us, that's a win-win situation."
It might be win-win for the police, but it's not win-win for responsible, law-
abiding adults. It's none of Jeffco's business what I drink, nor is it its job to intimidate me out of a glass of cabernet.
Trust me, the hard-core drinker, the repeat offender, won't be intimidated.
But Kelley is right about one thing. We can't measure effects. But we can look at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data in years when alcohol-
related deaths declined. In 2004, there were 411 fewer alcohol-related vehicular deaths than in 2003, and 394 of the reduction were in states with no roadblocks.
These sort of numbers led Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to describe the roadblocks as "elaborate, and disquieting, publicity stunts."
"Publicity stunt" is likely an overstatement. But for those of you who believe any action is worth undertaking to stop drunken driving, are you prepared for 0.00 percent blood-alcohol limits? How about interlock Breathalyzers in your car? (In New Mexico, such a bill passed the House before being shut down.)
That's why we must find a balance.
David Harsanyi's column appears Monday and Thursday. He can be reached at 303-820-1255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.