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Americans sacrifice personal freedoms in the name of public safety every day. When we go to the airport, we yield our belongings to a government agency for search. If we wish to purchase a firearm, we permit a background check and registration with the state. When we drive a vehicle, we adhere to mandated traffic laws.
Forfeiting certain freedoms to a government — in exchange for enhanced security — is widely accepted as a necessary reality of civil society. Determining the appropriate strength and breadth of these restrictions, however, is a constant topic of debate.
Drunk driving is a grave issue that plagues our roadways. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that an average of 28 Americans die every day as a result of inebriated drivers. In response to this preventable loss of life, state governments employ a variety of methods to reduce the number of intoxicated motorists on the road.
One common form of sober driving enforcement is the DUI checkpoint. Legal in 38 states, checkpoints systematically stop traffic on a designated roadway. Police officers ask to see drivers’ licenses, and attempt to deduce if the vehicle’s operator is under the influence. If they claim reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, officers proceed with more invasive inspection. Sobriety checkpoints are particularly familiar to Californians — they are used in the state over 2,000 times annually.
The debate surrounding DUI checkpoints is a prime example of our struggle to balance freedom with security. It is difficult to oppose any measure said to address the drunk driving epidemic. At the same time, allowing the government to systematically halt citizens for inspection — without them having demonstrated any suspicious driving practices — is problematic.
The first red flags appear when determining if the stops achieve their stated purpose. The checkpoints are legally supported by a Supreme Court case from 1990. In Michigan v. Sitz, the Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment could make exception for DUI roadblocks, because their impact on drivers’ rights was “negligible” in comparison to the public safety concern posed by drunk driving. The stops are legal because they are said to effectively target and punish intoxicated motorists.
Realistically, the roadblocks cast a much wider net. The officers at a police checkpoint are allowed to investigate a vehicle given reasonable suspicion of any crime. “Once a stop occurs, it can escalate into a more serious and burdensome encounter, having nothing to do with the rationale for the checkpoint,” writes Jacob Sullum, a Libertarian journalist.
Sullum notes that many DUI stops are equipped with drug-detecting canines, which officers have authority to use on any legally stopped vehicle. “Such searches may result in nothing more than inconvenience and embarrassment,” he continues, “but they also can result in forfeiture or arrest based on marijuana possession or other minor offenses.”
Other extraneous transgressions punished at police roadblocks include driving on a suspended license, driving with minors on a provisionary license or having expired registration. Undocumented immigrants are often snagged by DUI checks and have their vehicles taken. The Investigative Journalism Program at UC Berkeley found that in 2010, California police officers impounded six cars for every one DUI arrest made at roadblocks.
It is true that the people penalized for unrelated crimes brought their punishment upon themselves when they ignored the law. However, the Supreme Court made their exception to the Fourth Amendment to punish the reckless actions of drunk drivers — not to punish non-violent crime.
The most pressing question, though, is whether these roadblocks are even achieving their primary goal of reducing drunk driving incidents. The results are questionable. The Arizona Daily Star published an extensive report after analyzing the arrest data from Pima County, Arizona. From September 2005 to May 2007, they found that of 46,000 vehicles stopped at checkpoints, less than one percent were arrested for driving under the influence. Less than half of these cases led to actual convictions.
In 2008, California held more DUI checkpoints than any other state. Despite their proliferation, the Office of Traffic Safety reported that of 215,000 DUI arrests made that year, the roadblocks accounted for only 2.3 percent.
Given these unimpressive arrest rates — and their tendency to enforce crimes they were not assembled to enforce — state governments should be replacing checkpoints with more effective methods.
Saturation patrols, or “roving” patrols, are targeted operations that flood problem areas with extra police cars. Rather than systematically stopping every vehicle, officers are able to canvas a much larger area, specifically searching for drivers exhibiting dangerous behavior. Patrols of this style waste less time and resources, and produce impressive results.
Multiple studies demonstrate that this method of DUI enforcement leads to more arrests. In a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Justice Russell Nigro stated that evidence presented to the court heavily favored the use of saturation. In his dissenting opinion, Nigro pointed out that, “only .71 percent of all drivers stopped at suspicionless checkpoints were charged with DUI, whereas the same charge was lodged against 7.69 percent of drivers stopped by roving patrols.” Nigro acknowledged that the percentage is higher for saturation in part because they stop less vehicles — a fact that he believes only further demonstrates the practice’s efficiency.
FBI statisticians came to the same conclusion after conducting comparative studies in Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee. In its regularly published Law Enforcement Bulletin, officials plainly state, “It is proven that saturation efforts will bring more DUI arrests than sobriety checkpoints.”
With roving patrols at their disposal, state governments have little excuse to continue using DUI roadblocks. Checkpoints not only fail to balance security with their invasion of privacy, but low arrest rates imply that they do not actually achieve their initial goals, either.
To live in a safe world, it is sometimes necessary to forfeit a certain degree of personal freedom. However, this does not mean that our government should be undiscerning in the sacrifices they force us to make. While DUI checkpoints may be well intended, their unimpressive results fall short of compensating for their systematic invasion of privacy. The existence of a more effective, less intrusive alternative is simply the endgame.
Matthew Meyer actually kind of sucks at chess.