At one time, without giving it a lot of thought, I figured that police sobriety (or DUI) checkpoints were OK.
You hear a lot about the accidents that drunk drivers cause – and I’m particularly attuned because I do a lot of bicycle riding along highways and roads. The Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) organization is particularly active in seeing that drunk drivers are severely dealt with. I won’t argue against that.
But lately, I am concerned about police checkpoints as an answer to the problem.
The Fairfield police announced a sobriety checkpoint for Friday, June 15 in the newspapers, without disclosing the location. As a follow-up, the police disclosed after the fact that the checkpoint ran from 9:30 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. the next day (approximately four hours). They stopped 458 vehicles and netted one DUI suspect, plus issuing a number of citations for unlicensed driving.
For four hours of work with multiple police officers, the results are pretty slim. Wouldn’t they have found more DUI suspects while just on ordinary patrol on the city’s streets? It’s pretty easy to spot drunk drivers by their weaving within lanes, or driving too slow or too fast.
I don’t know if Dixon’s police have operated any such checkpoints in recent years.
There are a number of issues I have with DUI checkpoints. I should mention that they have been legally challenged, but the Supreme Court Okayed them if operated under strict guidelines. Still, 11 states don’t allow them under their own laws, and two more states don’t use checkpoints.
The legal challenge against the checkpoints, and also my reason for being against them, usually comes from that portion of the American Bill of Rights (part of the Constitution) which prohibits “… unreasonable searches or seizures.”
The Supreme Court majority apparently felt that the dangers of drunk drivers outweighed the right not to be searched without cause. The Court specified that DUI checkpoints are supposed to be operated in a neutral fashion – such as checking the driver of every seventh car. They don’t need to have a particular reason for stopping you.
The result often is that checking every seventh driver, or every fifth driver, or whatever, opens up the possibilities of the police checking for far more than excessive alcoholic consumption. By asking to see a driver’s license, the police can also be checking for undocumented immigrants, who can often be driving without a license. They can also be taking a quick looksee inside the car, checking for drugs or weapons out in the open. They can be smelling for marijuana or looking for stolen goods or burglary tools. If they act on such suspicions (or merely record license plates for investigation later) they have, in my opinion, violated the allowed scope of the checkpoint. It’s pretty hard to resist all the possibilities that vehicle checks open up.
On the California Highway Patrol Web site a justification of DUI checkpoints (they operate some themselves) is offered using the doctrine of implied consent: “Anyone granted the driving privilege (in California) is presumed to have given consent to law enforcement to conduct chemical testing of the motorist’s blood or breath.” Gotcha! The loophole to this provision is that if you’re driving without having a valid driver’s license, then you have not given them consent to DUI-test you!
A person can try to refuse checkpoint DUI testing under the fifth amendment of the Constitution which doesn’t allow self-incrimination, but that will just get you in a heap of trouble. It turns out that Constitutional guarantees don’t quite apply in so many of our most common situations.
It reminds me of legal doctrine that says ignorance of a law is no defense against the breaking of that law – so we’re expected to know every law in the land – federal, state, county and local.
Returning to DUI checkpoints, I want to take a step beyond the rules and legalities.
There’s something deeper that bothers me about random vehicle checking. I don’t like driving along at night and have a cop randomly stop me and shine a flashlight in on me as though I’m suspected of something, without cause. Sure, I’ll act like an obedient boy in Sunday School class, and talk nice and reasonably, and be given the go-ahead to leave (I’m a one-beer or one-glass-of-wine kind of guy). I’ll feel proper and law-abiding as I drive away, knowing how upstanding a citizen I am. But upon examination, why should I have to submit to this invasion of my privacy? I have given them no reason, no cause to stop me.
Vehicle checks, in my opinion, have a place in a war-torn city like Baghdad where vehicles have to be constantly checked for bombs.
This “Big Brother” area of our society isn’t confined just to DUI checkpoints. Every time we shop at Costco we’re subjected to an examination of our cart after paying at the checkout. Say they have two people there checking carts – do you think that the amount of money they save by identifying non-paid-for items pays the salary of these two people? No, I think they’re there only as a warning. By the way, if you try to bypass the “guards,” they will tell you that you signed an agreement allowing such checks as a condition of becoming a Costco member. Gotcha!
Then there are the infamous TSA checkpoints at airports which we have to endure. Of course, if you’re rich you can pay to go through a quick, expedited check. Have these checkpoints reduced some terrorist threats on planes? Probably. Could a dedicated terrorist probably still find a way to blow up a plane, if smart? Yes.
It often seems to me that over half of the reason for setting up the TSA checkpoints is to reassure travelers as opposed to catching terrorists. The airline industry is big in this country and they need the confidence of the travelling public to be profitable.
Overall, it seems to me, we seem to be developing a mentality of allowing greater and greater encroachment of “security” apparatus into our lives. With an attendant loss of privacy. You may think I’m alarmist in saying this, but the feds have ways of scanning every email sent through the Internet, looking for key words that might point toward a far-left political activist or a home-grown terrorist, or Al Qaeda cell here in the U.S. It’s fine, you might say, to catch a terrorist by any means possible. So what happens if you send emails urging people to not pay their taxes, or comparing the President to Hitler? You just might be making someone’s “bad guys” list. You might be placed on the TSA’s no-fly list (OK, I’m exaggerating a bit about the list).
One effect of all the police and TSA checkpoints is to create a cadre, a workplace category, of people with a vested interest in maintaining a constant heightened level of “security.” It’s the simple need to retain jobs and build bureaucracies, which is so easy in government. We know how powerful the California prison guards union has become in terms of lobbying and campaign contributions.
When you’re in an airport, don’t you get tired of hearing the constant reminders about “don’t leave your baggage unattended”? All this talk and activity keeps people nervous, afraid, and suspicious – that’s the way we seem to live today.
And to think that this whole thought process started with police DUI checkpoints in Fairfield.