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Tic Tac, Sir? State Sobriety Checkpoints Pending Vote

Peter Wong of the Statesman-Journal writes about possible amendments being made to the state constitution allowing law enforcement officials to set up roadblocks and the measure that would call checkpoints to a vote :

It was law enforcement against civil libertarians Monday on the issue of whether voters should be asked to change the Oregon Constitution to enable police to set up checkpoints to deter drunken drivers.

Along with Washington and Idaho, Oregon is among the dozen states that do not allow such roadblocks. The state Supreme Court, by a 5-2 vote in 1987, disallowed them as a violation of the state constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures without “probable cause.” The other 38 states do allow them.

House Joint Resolution 25, sponsored by Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany — a retired state police lieutenant — and others, would put the issue to the voters. Previous attempts to do so have not made it past the Legislature.

Drivers in Oregon wanting to drink on the road may have to become more clever than popping breath mints to evade DUII citation and arrest.  State voters have not wanted checkpoints in the past, but the latest bill announcement of House Joint 25 not only calls personal liberty into question but also driver protection.  Rep. Andy Olson is presenting the proposal  along with House Bill 3133 (HJ’s sister bill), which would change Oregon constitution to allow sobriety checkpoints throughout the state.

Local and state officials would set up and maintain road blocks, requiring drivers that pass through certain sanctioned areas to stop and be monitored for sobriety. Olson and other supporters of the bill believe that this will help with number of injuries and deaths involving alcohol, as well as reduce state health care costs with fewer ER and hospital visits.

The state Supreme Court decision to make checkpoints unconstitutional became valid in1987, prevented officers from being able to stop motorists without “probable cause”(the rest of the 38 states allows them). Oregon is currently one of 12 states that does not allow checkpoints. Olson is a former state police member, along with several other proponents for the bill, and he asserts that “the purpose of the two bills, specifically HJR 25, is to make the highways safer for the public by removing persons who are driving under the influence of intoxicants”.

Other proponents such as Mother’s Against Drunk Driving and the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance believe that checkpoint’s will deter drunk driving without inconveniencing other drivers. The group cites a familiar case study done in the late 90’s, in which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 20% reduction in car crashes where checkpoints were in effect.

Woodburn Police Chief Scott Russell, who spoke for the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, said he has worked his entire 23-year career without the use of roadblocks. Six of those years were in traffic and drunken-driving enforcement.

“I was struck twice by drunken drivers in the course of that enforcement,” Russell said at a hearing of the House Rules Committee. “I’ve had two officers struck. Both, interestingly enough, were sitting at the same intersection and traffic light when they were rear-ended by drivers at high speed. One was disabled permanently, and one was injured for six months before he came back to duty.”

Russell acknowledged that there are other measures some say are more effective to deter drunken driving but that roadblocks would be an effective tool “if properly applied.”

“In the end, I think the people of Oregon should decide if they want checkpoints to be used,” he said.

Opponents of the bill believe that this is an infringement of Oregonian’s rights and that checkpoints would not reduce instances of drunk driving due to checkpoints only being placed in certain areas.

Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said there is no good reason why the original 1857 guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures should be amended, just as voters have declined to change the guarantee of free expression despite repeated attempts.

“We should not be so quick to put any of these rights up to a popular vote under the guise of fixing a problem, no matter how compelling a case the proponents make,” she said. “In the case of the sobriety checkpoints, the Oregon Supreme Court drew the line … HJR 25 asks us to weaken one of the core provisions of our Constitution for the first time to allow police to use sobriety checkpoints.”

Those who disapprove of the amendment to state constitution believe more economic solutions can be made with the implementation of saturation patrols (FBI data supports that the dispersal of saturation patrols to be more effective than checkpoints) which involves concentrating officers to various locations.  This would also prevent any changes to the state constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1990 states that the use of checkpoints does impede driver’s safety against unreasonable search and seizure, but that the benefit of checkpoints for the general public outweighs any sacrifice of personal liberty.

Oregon voters are showing interest on the issue in polls, both for and against the measure, but they should be cognizant of cause and effect.  The implementation of checkpoints may stop some drunk driver’s, but the number of driver’s in the state who like to drink and drive (there are a lot of rednecks here) in relation to the number of officer’s and checkpoints in the state — I think the drunk idiots win.  Meyer’s may have a point.

Whether or not endorsing in favor of checkpoints will make Oregon driver’s more safe remains to be seen, but the issue of injuries and deaths relating to drunk driving should be a prevalent concern with voters and representatives until a more definite solution to the issue appears on the ballot.