DUI checkpoints for education as well as enforcement

Grand Junction Police Department officer Keith Wilson shined his flashlight into the driver’s side window of the black Audi sedan.

“Have you had anything to drink tonight?” he asked the 17-year-old driver.

Nope.

“Have you taken any drugs tonight?”

Huh-uh.

“Had any medical treatments for your eyes?”

No.

“Are you wearing contact lenses?”

Contacts? Weird question. No.

Then why, Wilson wondered, did the boy’s pupils consume the entire iris in each of his eyes? They looked black. And why didn’t they react to the flashlight? There was something creepy about it, something kind of “Village of the Damned.” Wilson called Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Jeff Lytle over. He agreed: Something definitely was not right.

Wilson asked the driver to step out of the car. His four teenage passengers appeared unfazed. Inexplicably, the boy commented that he’d been busted earlier in Fruita for possession. He just volunteered it. So, Wilson asked the driver again if he’d taken any drugs that night.

Answer: no.

OK.

Sometimes in these situations, Colorado State Patrol trooper Don Moseman said, truth is the knee-jerk response. But sometimes it’s emphatic denial, despite unresponsive pupils the size of garbanzo beans.

It can go either way at a sobriety checkpoint.

Held once a month on average — more often in August and September — sobriety checkpoints are part of local law enforcement’s high-visibility campaign to stop drunken driving. They are sometimes controversial, State Patrol Capt. Ed Clark said, and success can be hard to measure.

“For traffic safety, we have what we call the ‘three E’s’ — education, enforcement and engineering — to make roads safer,” Clark said. “DUI checkpoints are really a function of education, not enforcement.

“If the goal is utilizing DUI grant money purely to arrest drunk drivers, then saturation patrol has a higher arrest rate.”

Increased education, he added, is one of the reasons why this year in unincorporated Mesa County there haven’t been any fatal crashes in which a drunken driver was at fault. In 2009, there were seven. Statewide, 49 percent of fatal crashes involved alcohol, he said.

The checkpoints have long been debated for their effectiveness and constitutionality. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz that “a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint.” But, wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the court opinion, the “balance of the State’s interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program. We therefore hold that it is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

Eleven states — Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Alaska — don’t conduct sobriety checkpoints.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, some states assert sobriety checkpoints undermine the Fourth Amendment, which holds that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

In Colorado, sobriety checkpoints are conducted during 12 “enforcement periods” throughout the year, including Super Bowl weekend, Halloween weekend, St. Patrick’s Day, prom time and New Year’s Eve. The checkpoints, including officer overtime pay, are funded by High Visibility Enforcement grants from the Colorado Department of Transportation. In turn, the Transportation Department receives the money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which distributes money from 2005’s $244.1 billion Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users.

Each Colorado State Patrol district gets a lump sum for the fiscal year — District 4A received about $30,000 for this fiscal year, Clark said — while other participating law enforcement agencies receive money for each enforcement period. For example, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department was awarded $6,020 for the recent Holiday Parties period, and $3,010 for the upcoming New Year’s Eve period.

The money is used not just for checkpoints, but for increased patrol and other measures to combat drunken driving.

The checkpoints are conducted at various spots around the county and in cooperation between the Colorado State Patrol, Mesa County Sheriff’s Department and municipal police departments. The location and times of the three-hour checkpoints are determined by previous DUI arrest data as well as opportunities for alcohol consumption in a particular area and estimates of the most likely time that potential drunken drivers would be on the road in those areas.

For example, the Dec. 10 sobriety checkpoint, held during the “holiday parties” enforcement period, was from 9 p.m. to midnight at U.S. Highway 6&50 and 24 1/2 Road in Grand Junction, to contact people who might be leaving restaurants and shops in that area, Moseman said. Other checkpoints are conducted later, he said, to coincide with bar closing times or the end of concerts.

In 2008, there were 42 arrests at sobriety checkpoints in Mesa County, Lytle said, and in 2009 there were 49. So far this year, there have been 44 arrests, but that number excludes the special enforcement period in August and September, Lytle said.

Sometimes, the checkpoints are extremely active. Moseman said at certain checkpoints he has arrested Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Mr. Incredible (Halloween Weekend enforcement period). Other checkpoints, like the one Dec. 10, are more quiet.

“Again, how do you measure the success of that?” Lytle asked. “Is the checkpoint where you don’t encounter a drunk a success? One could argue that education’s working.”

Law enforcement personnel put up warning signs before that checkpoint, giving drivers the opportunity to turn away and avoid it. Occasionally, if there’s enough money for increased manpower, officers are positioned to stop the drivers who turn away from the checkpoint, Moseman said.

“We’re not saying don’t drink,” Moseman said. “We’re saying don’t drink and drive.”

It’s a message reiterated on the Mothers Against Drunk Driving flier that officers gave each person they talked to at the Dec. 10 checkpoint. They worked in a comfortable rhythm. After setting up cones and signs to warn drivers about and direct them into the checkpoint, a trooper stood on the highway and flagged drivers onto the frontage road, one car per available officer. Once each officer was occupied, the trooper waved cars past the checkpoint.

It went like this:

Moseman: “Good evening, Colorado State Patrol trooper conducting a DUI checkpoint. May I see your license?”

Driver: “OK” or “Sure” or no response as driver fumbles madly through purse in pursuit of the elusive license.

In the case of missing licenses, officers waved drivers to the side of the road and called in their information to dispatch. If they had a license, just not with them at the time, they were advised to go home and find it. If the license was suspended or revoked, drivers were told to call someone to come get them.

Drivers were cooperative, often friendly, even the man who had to show the officer his Interlock device because his license indicated a previous DUI.

Officer: “Anything to drink tonight, miss?”

Driver: “Uh, hot tea?”

“We always ask because the first impulse is to tell the truth,” Moseman said, walking away from the woman’s sport utility vehicle.

Officer: “Are you off work? Starting?”

Driver: “I’m going to pick up my wife from work.”

“We try to minimize the intrusion as much as possible,” Lytle said. “But this is also a good chance to contact the public, to educate them. For the most part, response to checkpoints is positive.”

Officer: “Have you had anything to drink tonight?”

Driver: “Not for five years.”

The officers working the line — three state troopers and one Grand Junction police officer — walked from the cars with random observations: gang affiliation indicated by tattoos; habitual drug use indicated by rough fingertips and sunken eyes; holiday stress indicated by white-knuckled hands clenching the steering wheel.

The evening’s excitement came when a pickup blew past the trooper flagging it into the checkpoint, jumped the median, flicked off its lights and sped behind Tequila’s restaurant. The Grand Junction police officer manning the camera that scans license plates called it in.

There was the man who admitted to having a drink two hours earlier, but he did fine following a pen with his eyes and completed his walking in a straight line with a shuffling, impromptu dance. It would have called his sobriety into further question had he not balanced on one foot in an “eagle in flight” pose; drunk people generally can’t do that, Moseman said. He passed the Breathalyzer and was sent on his way.

And then there was the 17-year-old with the enormous pupils. His braces glinted in the light from street lamps, and he stood with his hands shoved in his jeans pockets.

“The reason I want to talk to you is you look like you’re under the influence of something,” Wilson told him.

The boy shook his head no.

“Have you been smoking marijuana?”

Head shake. Huge, creepy pupils.

Wilson walked the driver to a nearby parking lot, where he did reasonably well following the tip of a pen with his eyes, but wobbled while walking in a line. The Breathalyzer declared him over the legal limit, so Wilson secured his hands behind his back with flex cuffs and put him in the back of a police car. His four young passengers were told to call someone to come get them.

It was a steady, low-key night. Drivers showed their licenses, officers gave them a MADD flier and sent them on their way. The temperature dropped, traffic slowed to a trickle near midnight, people just wanted to get home.

“My goal, as a law enforcement officer, is to be bored,” Clark said. “That would mean everybody follows the laws, and there’s nothing for us to do.”


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