Thursday, July 17, 2008

Checkpoint Charlies

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 21, 2007

Checkpoint Charlies

West Hartford will be conducting drunk driving checkpoints on June 22 on New Britain Ave. So, you've been warned.

by Jennifer Abel

You already know that you shouldn’t drive drunk, and you know the reasons why. But should you choose to ignore these reasons and drive drunk in West Hartford on June 22, make sure you avoid the lower end of New Britain Avenue. The cops are setting up a drunk checkpoint there, and you’ll totally get busted.

Wow – a newspaper advising its readers how to break public-safety laws without getting caught. Sounds edgy and rebellious, right? Nope. Actually, by helping drunks avoid the checkpoint we’re semi-cooperating with the police, who must make at least a token attempt to get the word out in order to qualify for DUI-enforcement grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Grant money from the [NHTSA] goes through the state Department of Transportation,” which then doles it out to cities and towns, according to Lieutenant David Dubiel, who handles traffic control for West Hartford. Of course there are restrictions on how these funds are spent. “We can’t buy equipment,” says Dubiel, but are limited to funding overtime pay for officers to either perform “roving patrols” (driving around with an eye out for trouble) or staff “sobriety checkpoints.”

And they can’t keep it secret. “[According to] parameters established in case law, [a checkpoint] has to be announced to the media,” said Dubiel. Though what the media then does with the announcement is up to them: “Say, I tell the Hartford Courant, but I can’t force them to print it.”

That’s okay — there’s no force necessary for the Advocate to do the right thing. So remember, everybody: if you’re drunk in West Hartford this June 22, or even if you’re sober and just don’t like the idea of innocent citizens having to pass through police checkpoints, stay the heck away from New Britain Avenue.

Before 1990, checkpoints in America were mostly seen on television, when low-rent stations aired old black-and-white movies about life under the Nazis or Communists. “Your papers, citizen.” Pre-1990 civics teachers bragged to their students that Americans are protected from that sort of thing by the fourth amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees: “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures … but upon probable cause.”

In other words: you can’t be stopped for searches or questioning unless the cops have a warrant or at least a very good reason to suspect you’re up to something. No “fishing expeditions” netting the innocent in hopes of catching a few guilty along with them are allowed.

Then, in the 1980s the Michigan State Police decided that drunk driving was too big a problem for the fourth amendment to cover it. The police started setting up random checkpoints, inspecting all drivers on a given road to ensure none had been drinking. Challenges to this went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1990 (by a 6-3 vote) that such checkpoints were indeed permissible.

Actually, when then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the Court opinion he agreed that “a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint.” But the Court decided this seizure without probable cause was only a “minimal intrusion of civil liberties,” and acceptable since reducing drunk driving is a legitimate concern of the government.

Ironically, Michigan’s Supreme Court later banned checkpoints within the state.

One of the arguments cited by the court were multiple studies showing checkpoints to be less effective than roving patrols in catching drunk drivers. (That the patrols avoided violating the fourth amendment was an added bonus.)

The Supreme Court ruling in favor of checkpoints had precedents: in 1976, for example, the Court said that checkpoints could be used within 100 miles of an international border, to determine drivers’ immigration status. Carving this exception to the Constitution was supposed to solve the illegal-immigration problem that plagued the country 31 years ago, the theory being that in exchange for a little fourth-amendment rollback, by 2007 or so illegal immigration would be a complete non-issue in America, border walls and INS crackdowns in New Haven notwithstanding.

Anyway, Dubiel thinks the purpose of the cops’ having to announce checkpoints to the media might be to keep constitutional bruising to a minimum. “Theoretically, the practical reason for the announcement [involves] the fourth-amendment rights against search and seizure,” he said.

When asked whether he found roving patrols or random checkpoints more effective in increasing the safety of the streets, Dubiel didn’t hesitate to answer.“I find roving patrols more effective … our last roving patrol we found a stolen car. There are no checkpoints for that.”

West Hartford’s town council voted to accept the NHTSA grant at the last council meeting. When you look at the agenda for a meeting in West Hartford (or any other municipality in America) you’ll usually see one or two items that you know will be rubber-stamped into acceptance with no prior debate.

One of the acceptance no-brainers on the last agenda was this: “Resolution to appropriate funds awarded the Town of West Hartford under the Federal Highway Safety Program for the purpose of expanded DUI enforcement.” No councilmember will vote to turn down free federal money, especially not in the name of public safety and double-especially not when the town’s having budget problems.

“The grant request was processed some time ago,” said Mayor Scott Slifka. “It’s for work we’ve done throughout the year, with the exception of [the upcoming checkpoint].” Slifka also said that the town helps fulfill the grant’s prior-notice requirement by mentioning future checkpoints on its “list serve,” a free e-mail subscription service offered on the town website. So if you’re wont to drink and drive in West Hartford then shame on you, and don’t forget to add your e-mail address to that list.