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DUI Checkpoints – Do They Help Keep Us Safe?

Credits: This news story was published at Philly.com by the Philadelphia Daily News Staff Writer William Bender on August 09,2012. Bender can be reached at benderw@phillynews.com, 215-854-5255

Lt. James McCarrick, who has been running Philadelphia’s DUI checkpoints for the past eight years, has seen and experienced hundreds of DUI arrests, and some incidents at these checkpoints have their own genre of cop humor. There is nothing funny about the arrests which McCarrick and other late-night officers have made as these DUI checkpoints really help keep the roads safe, but they have heard all sorts of excuses and explanations from drunk drivers.

“They’ll try anything. It’s pretty comical at times. It turns into a road show,” said McCarrick.

Studies have been carried out to check the usefulness of sobriety checkpoints and statistics reveal that these sobriety checkpoints help reduce alcohol-related crashes by about 20 percent, which means that every dollar invested in the DUI checkpoints can save anywhere from $6 to $23 in costs from alcohol-related crashes. In Pennsylvania, statistics show that the number of DUI-related fatalities have steadily reduced as the number of DUI-related arrests have increased.

The question remains if DUI checkpoints actually help make roads safer. Moreover, if a driver is stopped without probable cause, isn’t it considered a violation of the rights of the driver? People have different answers to these questions, even 23 years after a divided Supreme Court ruled on a Michigan case and provided the legal framework for today’s checkpoints.

Statistics do reveal that sobriety checkpoints help reduce DUI-related fatalities. In Pennsylvania, the number of DUI-related fatalities reduced to 404 in 2012 from 542 in 2004. During these years, the number of DUI arrests increased dramatically, from only 5,529 arrests in 2004 to 14,953 arrests in 2012. Pennsylvania is one of the 38 states that allows sobriety checkpoints.

Sobriety checkpoints are not conducted in the remaining 12 states as these states prohibit them outright. The state of Texas is one of these states which has determined that checkpoints are illegal under its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

A drug-recognition expert, George Geisler of the Pennsylvania DUI Association says, “Yes, it’s a momentary intrusion, but when you see the number of lives that we save from impaired driving and the crime we get off the street – the drugs, the guns and wanted people – the juice is worth the squeeze.” Geisler examined impaired drivers at the recent Port Richmond checkpoint.

Another research carried out is of the opinion that “saturation patrols” are more effective than DUI checkpoints when it comes to measuring DUI arrests per hour. With saturation patrols, police target a larger geographic area and look for signs of impaired driving rather than stopping drivers indiscriminately.

DUI attorneys and civil libertarians question whether checkpoints are a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The issue gained national attention when an innocent Tennessee college student posted a video on YouTube on July 4, of police harassing him. He was stopped at a DUI checkpoint and the video showed the police searching his car. The video went viral on social media sites and has been viewed more than 4 million times.

McCarrick however strongly opposes the constitutional arguments against checkpoints presented by DUI attorneys and civil libertarians. “We’ll get the old, ‘What, you got nothing better to do than lock up DUIs when murders are going on?’ and all that nonsense,” he said. He feels that DUI checkpoints help prevent thousands of drunk driving accidents, as thousands of people get killed each year nationwide by drunk drivers.

“If we lock up nine people that evening, we could’ve saved somebody,” he said. “We could have saved that individual from taking his car and wrapping it around a tree. So, to me, no matter what, it’s a positive.”

David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia civil-rights attorney, is of the opinion that officers out on patrol are more effective in curbing drunk driving. He says, “While I recognize the danger of drunk driving, I think the more effective and constitutional way to deal with that is to have officers on patrol, not sitting at a checkpoint.”

The truth is that sobriety checkpoints are often misunderstood. In reality, they are not designed to entrap drivers, which is the popular belief. A usual weekend checkpoint in Philadelphia from March through September, which is conducted by 18 officers, usually nets 8 to 13 DUI drivers. According to police data, these checkpoints are carried out in areas where drunk driving is prevalent.

According to Capt. John Wilczynski, who is the commanding officer of the Accident Investigation Division in North Philly, the overall goal of sobriety checkpoints is to create public safety and awareness. The checkpoint is to create a visual deterrent to impaired driving, so people will make other transportation arrangements if they’re going out drinking. “It’s never about catching people, but if they are impaired, they get arrested,” he said.

McCarrick says that the location of checkpoints is disclosed and at least in Philly, police will not pursue drivers if they turn before entering the two-block “chute” where stops are being conducted.

“If you see that sucker, you can just turn,” McCarrick said.

The stops are usually less than 20 seconds and officers ask a couple of quick questions to decide if the driver is showing signs of impairment or not. They will shine a light in their car and if they do not find any reason to detain the driver, they are good to go. Officers at the sobriety checkpoints will also hand a flier about the dangers of drunk drivers to all the cars passing through the checkpoint.

“Most of the people, especially when they’re sober, are happy to see you,” McCarrick said.

53-year-old Darren Wolfe of Royersford is of the opinion that “Checkpoints are what dictatorships do.” He participated in a checkpoint protest in Montgomery County last year and videotaped police pulling over drivers who turned around.

Organizations like the National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service and Drug Enforcement Administration are also questioning the need for random stops. Wolfe, who is one of the privacy-minded drivers says, “When people have no privacy, the government can just stop you and ask you what you’re doing and take a look at you for whatever whimsical reason they come up with. We do not live in a free society anymore.”

News Source: www.Philly.com

Leckerman