Unconstitutional? Effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints questioned.

The Kansas City Star

If you were driving one of the 18,747 vehicles Kansas City police stopped at drunken-driving checkpoints last year, odds are you weren’t arrested.

In fact, only 1.6 percent of those drivers were arrested for being drunk.

Police departments around the Kansas City area and the country spend thousands of dollars a year on DUI checkpoints with similar results. While police defend checkpoints as a great public relations tool against drunken driving, there are better ways to catch drunken drivers, experts say.

Take saturation patrols, where police cruise city streets in search of swerving cars that may be driven by drunks. They are cheaper to conduct and more efficient — for each car that police officers stop, they are almost four times as likely to catch a drunk.

Five of the larger area police departments stopped 25,510 vehicles at checkpoints last year, but only 2,765 during saturation patrols. Both efforts produced arrests — traffic tickets, but also outstanding warrants, drug violations and alcohol-related offenses such as driving with an open container. In fact, saturation patrols yielded more charges — 3,100 — than the number of cars stopped. The total arrest rate for the checkpoints: 2.8 percent.

And the saturation patrols cost $31.68 per ticket or arrest. The checkpoint price tag? $184.84.

Taxpayers question checkpoints’ rate of return. Cliff Jones of Raytown reads about checkpoint results when they’re published in the newspaper and wonders if they are an efficient way to catch drunken drivers.

“I’m not against them at all, but I am for efficiency, and there is a certain amount of manpower that it takes off the street. And it makes you wonder, is there a better way of doing it?” he said.

Police concede that checkpoints don’t catch a lot of drunken drivers. The statistics don’t reflect the lives saved by those who chose a designated driver because they knew a checkpoint awaited them, they say.

“Regardless of how small the number is, you’re still taking a dangerous driver off the street, and that’s still a person who could have injured an innocent driver during their drinking episode,” said Police Capt. Rich Lockhart of Kansas City.

You’ve probably seen a checkpoint.

You’re driving home late on a Friday night and you spot a line of cars stopped ahead. The flashing lights, warning signs and the large police command post confirm what you feared: You’ve entered a DUI checkpoint.

You might get waved through. Officers — 30 to 40 of them —stop cars in a predetermined pattern, say every car, every third car or every fifth car. When it’s your turn, an officer checks your license, maybe checks your record for outstanding warrants and asks whether you’ve been drinking. An officer leans into your car window with a flashlight that may be equipped with alcohol sensors. If the cop thinks you’re drunk, you’re pulled over for more tests, including a breath analysis.

Some studies show the benefits of these police-intensive checkpoints.

In one, alcohol-related fatality crashes dropped 20 percent during and almost two years after a yearlong blitz of 882 checkpoints in Tennessee. At the same time, drunken-driving deaths increased slightly in the five surrounding states that did not take part in the blitz, which was coupled with an intense media campaign.

Surveys of Tennessee drivers showed that the checkpoints did generate good PR for the anti-drunken-driving cause.

A 1995 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration evaluation of several DUI enforcement efforts showed that 80 percent of those surveyed were aware of the checkpoints — a deterrence to drunken driving, researchers concluded. Significantly fewer drivers were aware of saturation patrols, the study found.

An alternative method

But is good PR enough?

Eugene O’Donnell, a former prosecutor and New York City police officer who teaches police studies at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, questions that rationale for checkpoints.

“You could say if you catch one drunk driver out of a thousand it sends a message,” O’Donnell said. “But is that (a checkpoint) really a good use of resources? … Law enforcement is loath to acknowledge whether anything is ineffective.”

And here is the problem police grapple with: Traffic deaths caused by drunken drivers haven’t changed much in the past 10 years, both nationally and locally. Kansas has seen some improvement. Missouri’s alcohol fatality rate for every mile driven remains above the national average.

Critics such as Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the American Beverage Institute, argue that deaths due to drunken drivers dipped more in states that don’t do checkpoints than in states that do conduct DUI checkpoints.

For example, the nation saw a slight decrease in alcohol-related fatal crashes from 2003 to 2004, but 96 percent of the decrease came in the 11 states that do not allow checkpoints but do use saturation patrols, among other efforts, Longwell said.

“Every one of the 11 non-roadblock states saw a decline in alcohol-related fatalities, while almost half of the roadblock states saw an increase in alcohol-related fatalities,” she said. “The number one problem with these checkpoints is that they are costly, and they are not keeping us safe.”

Checkpoints fare worst with habitual drunken drivers, critics said.

Problem drunken drivers “just take a different way home,” said Cole Casey, a San Diego attorney with the National College for DUI Defense, which educates attorneys about DUI law and the science of intoxication. That includes “pseudoscientific areas such as field sobriety testing,” according to its Web site.

A 1997 North Carolina study showed that officers failed to catch more than half the drivers passing through a checkpoint with a blood alcohol content higher than .08 percent. After checkpoint officers deemed the drivers sober and let them drive on, researchers interviewed the drivers and took voluntary breath samples.

“People who are repeat drunk drivers are able to get through,” said O’Donnell, the John Jay College professor. “It would be a giant myth that if you are drunk and you are stopped at a checkpoint that you’re going to get arrested. That might come as a surprise.”

Critics such as Longwell want to swap DUI checkpoints for saturation patrols.

“If we’re diverting money to checkpoints, that leaves less for saturation patrols, which also can catch speeders and some idiot swerving while on his cell phone,” Longwell said.

Unlike checkpoints, saturation patrols are mobile and cover areas a checkpoint can’t, like a busy highway. Officers working a saturation patrol can only stop cars for a reason: weaving, speeding and other traffic violations.

And so officers on saturation patrols catch more drunken drivers.

For example, from October 2006 through September 2007, Independence police spent $31,875 on checkpoints, where they stopped 3,091 cars and made 63 drunken-driving arrests and 66 arrests for other violations, including warrants and drug possession. That’s an arrest rate for all violations of about 4.2 percent at a cost of $247.09 for each arrest.

During the same time, they spent $81,878.54 on saturation patrols, where they stopped 2,253 cars and made arrests or wrote tickets for 2,575 violations, including 110 for drunken driving. That’s an arrest rate of 114 percent, at a cost of $31.79 per offense.

A U.S. Department of Transportation report concluded: “If making a large number of (drunken driving) arrests is an objective, (the data) clearly suggests that roving patrols would be the preferred method.”

That’s why some police departments, like the sheriff’s department in Ohio County, W.Va., have stopped doing checkpoints in favor of more saturation patrols.

“I’m no big fan of them,” Chief Deputy Pat Butler said about checkpoints. “They’re OK for informational purposes, but I think DUI saturation patrols are much more effective.”

‘A precision instrument’

Most DUI arrests are made by officers on routine patrol. But for special drunken-driving enforcement, most Kansas City area police departments use both checkpoints and saturation patrols.

But one, the Lee’s Summit Police Department, is rethinking checkpoints. They are doing more saturation patrols and fewer, smaller checkpoints.

Lee’s Summit officers now participate in the larger checkpoints only while working with the Jackson County Traffic Safety Task Force.

When working on their own, they conduct low-impact checkpoints, a concept that police departments nationwide are beginning to use.

Instead of using 30 to 40 officers, these small-scale roadblocks use about six. The officers set up for a short period of time, maybe 90 minutes, at a specific time and location where they have seen lots of accidents or drunken driving.

“It’s like a precision instrument,” said Capt. Kevin Reaves.

A 2005 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that these low-impact checkpoints can be conducted safely with as few as three to five officers and for as little as $300 to $400.

The study also showed that they were just as effective as the larger, more costly checkpoints.

During a low-impact checkpoint in 2006, Lee’s Summit officers stopped 83 vehicles and had a 7 percent DUI arrest rate, compared with a 1.35 percent arrest rate last year at a large-scale checkpoint that Lee’s Summit conducted with the county traffic task force.

Staffing shortages have made it difficult for Lee’s Summit police to staff a lot of small-scale checkpoints, Reaves said. Sometimes it’s more efficient to organize a large-scale checkpoint using the resources of the county traffic task force, which includes a couple of Lee’s Summit officers.

“You have to look at the allocation of resources,” Reaves said. “We’re not just here to burn money.”
Checkpoints vs. saturation patrols
At checkpoints, up to 40 police officers stop cars in a predetermined pattern. Drivers may be asked to submit to tests if they are suspected of drunken driving. In saturation patrols, officers search for cars that appear to be operated by drunken drivers.
Kansas City police will conduct two DUI saturation patrols this holiday weekend as part of a Missouri campaign to stop drunken driving.

@ Go to KansasCity.com for a photo gallery from a recent Kansas City checkpoint.