The 4th Amendment ensures the right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures". The "reasonableness" of any particular search and / or seizure depends on the unique facts of each situation. To determine whether or not a given search is "reasonable", the courts perform a balancing test. On one hand, they weigh the state's interest in public safety. On the other, they consider an individuals expectation of privacy in the given situation. The court will consider the methods by which the search was performed and whether or not other, less intrusive means are available to law enforcement to decide whether or not a search passes constitutional muster.
Obviously, the state has a strong interest in preventing and deterring drunk driving. Drunk driving is a major safety concern on the roads. Alcohol is the biggest single contributing factor in fatal auto collisions. I think we all agree on this: drunk driving is bad. We all want to keep drunk drivers off the road. We also want to achieve this directive in a manner that is cost-effective -- saving the most lives per dollar spent. Along those same lines, we all want to preserve the rights and privileges that make America great.
The flip side of the coin is this: DUI checkpoints are plainly examples of warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. A typical DUI checkpoint can screen thousands of drivers in a given night. Commuters will be subjected to traffic delays and unnecessary police interrogation. Everyone is a suspect at DUI checkpoints. This is clearly not what the Constitution's Framers envisioned. Americans have the constitutional right to move about the country, free from unnecessary government intervention. You don't need the cops' permission to drive down your street -- you own the street and the cops work for you. DUI checkpoints turn this principle on its head.
To rectify the conflict between public safety and individual privacy, the US Supreme Court has provided a set of guidelines to be considered when determining the constitutionality of a particular DUI checkpoint. Among the Court's list of factors, it ruled that:
- Checkpoints should be publicized
- Checkpoints should be set up in areas where there is already a high occurrence of drunk driving and DUI-related accidents
- Drivers should have an opportunity to avoid the checkpoint (Note: Police have gotten around this one. If they provide some opportunity to turn away before entering the checkpoint, there will usually be "chasers" in position. The chasers are cops whose job is to watch for anyone who avoids the checkpoint. They will follow you until they find a reason to pull you over, imagined or otherwise.)
If the traffic delays and suspicionless interrogations don't bother you, consider the cost of these dragnets. DUI checkpoints usually cost taxpayers about $10,000.00 to operate per night. The funds come from various sources, including federal and state grants to local police agencies. The checkpoints are staffed by officers on overtime. Next time you're sitting in traffic waiting to go through one of these time-wasters, at least you'll be comforted by the fact that the cops are being paid time-and-a-half.
Of course, police unions are the most vocal lobbyists in favor of more checkpoints. Their members get to stand around and eat catered food while getting paid extra to do safe, easy "work". I like to call the dragnets "DUI Checkpoint Fundraisers", because I think that accurately describes their function. DUI checkpoints don't just raise funds from state and federal grants, they also boost department coffers with towing and impound fees. Did you forget to pay a ticket from out-of-county when you were on vacation? Did your wife forget to mail in your insurance check? If so, you might be surprised to learn that you have a suspended driver's license. You'll be even more surprised when police impound your car, hold it for 30 days, and charge you thousands of dollars to release it at the end of the month.
So there are avoidable traffic delays and suspicionless interrogations that erode the public's faith in law enforcement. There's the tax dollars being squandered on unnecessary overtime pay and the wasted police resources that aren't being utilized while the checkpoint is in operation. Any other reasons people should avoid DUI checkpoints? Here's one: they simply don't catch drunk drivers. As I mentioned above, a typical DUI checkpoint can screen thousands of drivers in a single night. On average, though, a checkpoint will net less than 1 DUI arrest. If the purpose of DUI checkpoints is to catch DUI drivers, then they're not working. Just imagine if all those cops working the checkpoint had been in their cars, cruising high-DUI areas, watching for intoxicated individuals and responding to actual alcohol-related incidents. Remember what I said above about lives saved per dollar spent?
DUI checkpoints are wasteful in every respect. The sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can start implementing strategies that actually reduce the harms associated with DUI driving. For my part, I will continue publicizing advance notice of DUI checkpoints in Orange County on my Facebook page. Check back often for updates as they become available.
As always, please don't give the cops anything to do.