UPDATED: Feb. 29, 2012 11 a.m. – to include statement from MADD representative, received post initial publication.
SALT LAKE CITY – Last week, Utah’s House of Representatives narrowly passed House Bill 140 that would stop law enforcement agencies from conducting DUI checkpoints. While the bill still faces a tough battle in the state Senate, should it become law, police in Utah will no longer have the authority to randomly stop drivers at checkpoints and perform DUI tests.
In most cases police cannot pull people over unless they have a reason to suspect wrongdoing. Checkpoints are controversial because they allow police to pull over vehicles at random intervals without first establishing probable cause, raising concerns that such checkpoints amount to an invasion of privacy for the vast majority of sober drivers.
In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged these concerns, but went on to state that the government has a “grave and legitimate” interest in stopping impaired drivers. Ultimately, the court ruled that DUI checkpoints do not violate citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.
Art Brown, president of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, believes that the checkpoints are an important tool for law enforcement. “The CDC and the National Transportation Safety Board recommend that we hold checkpoints,” he said. “We think it is a great option and we don’t want to see it taken off the table.”
Locally, state representatives came out strongly against the proposed ban on DUI checkpoints: Bradley Last, Evan Vickers, V. Lowry Snow and Don Ipson all voted against the ban; while among Southern Utah representatives, only Michael Noel and Christine Watkins supported the measure.
Residents of Washington County are split on the matter. “I don’t drink and drive,” said St. George native, Justin Aiken, “I’m more worried that a checkpoint will make me late for work than the remote possibility I’ll encounter a drunk driver.” Dixie College student Shane Brown disagrees. “I’ve gone through checkpoints before in Arizona, and it usually takes less than a minute before you’re on your way. If you aren’t drinking and driving, you don’t have anything to hide.”
However, sometimes even law-abiding citizens can face major inconveniences at checkpoints, said Ogden defense attorney Glen Neely. While Neely can’t speak about specific cases, he claimed that many of his clients have been unjustly charged with impaired driving at DUI checkpoints.
“Say it’s late at night,” said Neely, “and a driver who has been working late goes through a checkpoint and has bloodshot eyes because he’s tired.” Even if such a person passes a Breathalyzer test at the scene, he said, an officer might suspect drug use. “They have to give him a blood test. That takes a couple of weeks to come back, so they charge him with DUI based on those observations.” Even if a person is ultimately vindicated by their blood test, simply being charged with a DUI can be quite expensive. “Number one, he’s been taken to jail; number two, his car has been impounded; number three, he’s had to bail out of jail; number four, he’s had to hire and attorney and pay attorney feels. All of this happens before the case eventually gets resolved and dismissed. It happens every day.”
Regardless of how you feel about sobriety checkpoints, they aren’t something you’re likely to encounter in Washington County. “In my thirty-year career, I only remember doing two or three DUI checkpoints,” said Sgt. Craig Harding of the St. George Police Department. While the Utah Highway Patrol often conducts DUI checkpoints in Washington County during holiday weekends, the SGPD typically utilizes saturation patrols. “We just look at behavior. We look at driving patterns and accidents,” Harding said, “even when we do DUI enforcement night, we don’t utilize checkpoints. We just go out and we hunt for them.”
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.