It's holiday checkpoint season again, and time for local police and The California Highway Patrol to put up random sobriety roadblocks. But, just how necessary are they, and what restrictions govern them regarding the rights of motorists?
The fourth amendment to the Constitution protects people from being stopped without a search warrant, or at least "probable cause" that they've committed a crime. While the US Supreme Court did make an exemption regarding DUI checkpoints, eleven states have still outlawed them...following a landmark 1990 ruling in Michigan that granted permission to uphold outstanding state law.
Here in California, the CHP maintains that checkpoints reduce the number of drunk drivers on the roads and highways, and diminishes the amount of pain, suffering and death that result from drunk driving. Still, 51-percent of all drivers in America fall victim to at least one alchohol-related accident, while one person dies every 22 minutes from a drunk driving accident. The current annual death toll is at 11, 888.
No matter how grim the numbers, sobriety checkpoints must still follow strict protocol laid out by the California Supreme Court. Checkpoint locations must be chosen by supervisory police officers, not field officers. Advanced notice must also be given, while location of road blocks is not required. Police must also us a a neutral mathematical formula when stopping drivers, such as....every car, or every 3rd car etc.
Motorist safety must be a primary concern, with police providing proper lighting, warning signs and signals. Checkpoints should be only open when traffic volume allows safe operation. In fact, checkpoints open during late evening hours on major holidays. Here in San Jose, the next checkpoints are scheduled for December 31st between 8pm and 3am.
Officers are also not allowed to detain drivers longer than it takes to ask a few questions, while looking and smelling for obvious signs of intoxication. If cleared, the driver should be swiftly waived through, while those showing signs of impairment are taken to a seperate area for a field sobriety test. I recently discovered one other, unusual restriction during a personal road experience.
While driving north-bound on Bascom Avenue in San Jose this past Labor Day weekend, I came upon a checkpoint just past the stoplight at Stokes Avenue. As I eased behind a slow line of cars heading for the blinking signs, I noticed a few cars making sudden U-turns in an obvious attempt to avoid the road block. Even the driver in front of me darted left onto a double-yellow line and into a 7'11 parking lot. Isn't that illegal, I thought? Can't the cops stop them for that? None were around to see them!
According to the Supreme Court, motorists may NOT be stopped while seeking to avoid a checkpoint. However, if the ditching driver commits a vehicle code violation, or shows obvious signs of intoxication...police can pull them over. Next evening the Bascom Avenue checkpoint was back up, but a half-mile closer to Valley Medical Center this time,and pointed North.
Curiously, I joined the checkpoint line again, but, this time a half-dozen patrol cars were stationed BEHIND the line, partially hidden in dark parking lots. Up front and past the checkpoint to the right, was a very well lighted parking lot...filled with cars and their drivers performing drunk tests.
That scene reminds me of the age-old advice which always provides the best way around such a scenerio. DON'T drink and drive!!
If you MUST drink....either stay home, take a cab or ride next to a designated driver. That way you'll sail through all your checkpoints...without checking into jail or checking OUT for good!
Stay safe and stay sober,