DO SOBRIETY CHECKS TRAMPLE ON OUR RIGHTS?
A“Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” — Ben Franklin
re police-conducted sobriety checkpoints a necessary law enforcement tool to remove drunken drivers from our roads? Or are they an unreasonable search of our property and an unconstitutional invasion of our rights and privacy?
Hammond Police Department Lt. Patrick Vicari insists that sobriety checkpoints are a valuable, and measurable, public safety tool that curbs the number of impaired motorists from traffic.
As his department’s Traffic Division commander, he organizes periodic checkpoints in his city, which always prove successful to various degrees. Not only do the checkpoints detect and arrest drunken drivers, they also prompt other citations by police, typically for equipment and driver’s license violations. Other times for more serious crimes.
“Traffic safety is my passion,” Vicari told me on my latest radio show. “In my 21 years on the force, I never had much desire to do anything else. This is what makes me happy and motivates me to come to work every day.”
During his department’s latest sobriety checkpoint — a late-night, three-hour operation in front of a closed gas station at the Five Points intersection in Robertsdale — officers arrested five motorists for suspicion of impaired driving. Officers also issued 111 other citations that night, including one arrest for possession of marijuana.
Would police have found that pot, or the other many violations, if not for the checkpoint? Probably not.
“It’s clearly a violation of the 4th Amendment and it shouldn’t be allowed,” said Jerry H. of Valparaiso. “The 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.”
He has a valid point, and one taken seriously by most Americans. But not always when it comes to arresting drunken drivers, as readers recently told me.
“I would gladly sacrifice my 4th Amendment right to keep someone from being hurt or killed by a drunk driver,” said Carla S. from Valparaiso.
“Drunkenness is not an unreasonable cause,” said Glenn Y. of Portage. “Drive sober, then you don’t have to hide under any amendment.”
By law, police must first publicly post announcements of the checkpoints, and Vicari is one of the best cops in the region to do this on a regular basis. The checkpoints are part of the statewide Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over traffic safety campaign, with grant money paying overtime to officers.
“Motorists who are stopped will be asked for their driver’s license and registration if stopped. Motorists who have no violations may expect to be delayed about two to three minutes before going on their way,” his press release states.
Have you ever been pulled over for one? I have, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
“I know some people will say that Big Brother is imposing on them when we conduct traffic safety campaigns,” Vicari said. “To them I’d say that by doing this particular campaign, we removed five impaired drivers from our roadways thereby making our roads safer.
“Although there is a certain stigma of being the victim of a homicide, there is no difference between being the victim of a homicide or the victim of an impaired driver. The victim’s family will still suffer all the same,” he added.
During these checkpoints, police search every third vehicle, regardless of how the driver looks, acts or drives.
“They arrest people for other things besides being drunk, which just makes it a checkpoint like they did in (Nazi) Germany,” Jim W. of Valparaiso told me. “I don’t support driving drunk, but if it’s a sobriety checkpoint then that is the only thing they should be able to arrest a person for.”
Scott C. of Merrillville agrees, insisting that checkpoints are a clear violation of our constitutional rights.
“Yes, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of unconstitutional checkpoints in a split decision citing that they could make exceptions to our Constitution,” he told me. “I missed that phrase in the Constitution that allows for exceptions to be made. Shame on all who support this.”
And to the cops who man these checkpoints, Scott C. said, “Calling it your job still don’t make it right,” echoing a John Mellencamp song, I think.
Critics of the checkpoints tell motorists they don’t have to answer any questions by police. Just show your driver’s license and registration, as required by law, they say.
I have mixed feelings about this issue, especially after once getting pulled over by police for alleged drunken driving, several years ago. It happened near a checkpoint and I believe the cops thought I was avoiding the checkpoint due to being intoxicated.
In truth, I rarely drink alcohol, I’ve never been (expletive)-faced drunk, and I’ve never driven under the influence of anything besides sleepiness. That was possibly a factor when I got pulled over that night in Portage, I don’t know.
The officer had me do about every field sobriety test in his arsenal on the side of that busy road as other motorists slowed down to gape at me. It was embarrassing. It was infuriating. It was uncalled for, I thought at the time.
These days, I feel differently.
I see too many apparently drunken drivers weaving in and out of traffic. I see too many crashes caused by drinking and driving in the newspaper police blotters. I see too many people I know get behind the wheel after downing “just a couple beers,” when in reality they lost track of all the booze they drank.
Often, they’re under the influence of denial. Or pride. Or just plain stubbornness.
I also know several well-known alcoholics who miraculously haven’t been pulled over while obviously drunk, again. And who miraculously haven’t hurt or killed anyone, yet.
So I, too, am willing to sacrifice my constitutional rights in this case if it helps get these dangerous knuckleheads off the streets and out of my path. Agree? Disagree? Let me know and I’ll revisit this issue.
Sgt. Tracy Laurinec escorts a man who was found to be intoxicated at a sobriety checkpoint in Hammond on Aug. 22.