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Police defend sobriety checkpoints

Tom Hindman
Local police officers line Washington Street during a recent DUI checkpoint. Police say the checkpoints are effective deterrents for drunken driving, but a restaurant trade group has criticized the practice as ineffective harassment of those who have a social drink or two.
Tom Hindman Police are required to announce checkpoints, like this one on Quarrier Street, ahead of setting them up.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The flashing lights and police officers of a sobriety checkpoint can strike fear in a driver's heart.

And police say that's exactly the point of the checkpoints - even if few drunken drivers are actually caught.

Such checkpoints have come under recent fire as unnecessary intimidation from a trade group representing restaurants where people sometimes have a drink with their dinner.

But local police say they're a necessary tool to keep drunken drivers off the streets.

Lt. Sean Crosier of the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department said deputies usually catch two or three impaired drivers during a sobriety checkpoint. He added that patrols are normally much more effective because there is no law requiring the law enforcement agency to advertise the location of the patrol.

"But I think the checkpoints are more effective than what the numbers show," he said.

Crosier believes sobriety checkpoints deter many people from driving while impaired and instead encourage them to use a designated driver while out on the town. He added that although the checkpoints are not as effective as patrols, impaired drivers are still caught at the checkpoints.

"And anything we can do to take an impaired driver off the road should be considered effective," Crosier said.

However, a national trade association released a statement in the national media calling sobriety checkpoints "ineffective."

Officials with the American Beverage Institute, an association representing 8,000 restaurants, said the checkpoints were ineffective because on average, three DUI arrests are made for every 1,000 drivers stopped.

Sarah Longwell, managing director for the institute also said the checkpoints, "harass responsible adults who have been drinking moderately prior to driving."

Bob Tipton, director of the state Governor's Highway Safety Program, strongly disagreed with Longwell's assessment. Tipton also took issue with Longwell's statement about moderate drinkers.

"What exactly is moderate?" he asked. "Anytime you get behind the wheel when you've been drinking, it's dangerous."

According to statistics provided by Tipton, 302 sobriety checkpoints were conducted in West Virginia from Dec. 29, 2009 to Dec. 29, 2010. A total of 199 people were arrested for DUI at those checkpoints, according to the statistics.

During that same time period, 146,976 cars passed through those checkpoints.

The Governor's Highway Safety Program provides grant funding to help departments cover the cost of sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols. Saturation patrols are a tactic when a large number of officers are concentrated in a small geographic area.

From Dec. 29, 2009 to Dec. 29, 2010, a total of 2,654 DUI arrests were made as a result of saturation patrols across the state, according to the statistics provided by Tipton. During that time period, 1,180 officers worked a total of 37,081 hours on the saturation patrols.    

Although officers arrested a larger number of people during saturation patrols, Tipton still believes sobriety checkpoints are effective in deterring impaired drivers.

"I think checkpoints reach a lot more people and discourage drunk driving," he said.

Tipton pointed out that checkpoints are very visible, but few people notice additional officers out on patrol.

A little over $1 million in grant money was spent around the state to fund the saturation patrols, according to the statistics. Tipton did not have the exact amount of money spent on DUI checkpoints.

However, Crosier estimated that each checkpoint held by the county costs about $2,500. The Governor's Highway Safety Program provided this funding in the form of grants. The Kanawha County Sheriff's Department had eight sobriety checkpoints in 2010, Crosier said.

Citations other than DUI are also issued during sobriety checkpoints, Tipton said. From Dec. 29, 2009 to Dec. 29, 2010, 1,081 citations were issued to drivers operating a vehicle without insurance.

Nineteen felony arrests were also made during that time period, and seven fugitives from justice were also apprehended during sobriety checkpoints, Tipton said.

Sgt. Shawn Williams with the Charleston Police Department's Traffic Division believes that both sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols are effective in catching impaired drivers. He noted that the Charleston Police Department normally runs about two sobriety checkpoints a month.

"We normally arrest five or six people during a checkpoint," he said.

He agreed that when analyzed dollar for dollar, saturation patrols are much more effective in catching impaired drivers. But like Tipton and Crosier, Williams said sobriety checkpoints are very visible and often deter people from driving while intoxicated.

"Sobriety checkpoints spread the message that drunk driving will not be tolerated," he said.

Williams estimated that each sobriety checkpoint costs about $2,500, which is reimbursed to the department using grant money.

Sgt. Michael Baylous, spokesman for the West Virginia State Police, also believes checkpoints are vital in the fight against impaired drivers.

"DUI checkpoints are very effective in letting the public know we're enforcing DUI laws," Baylous said.

Baylous did not have exact numbers of how many sobriety checkpoints the State Police have run throughout the year. He also did not have numbers readily accessible on the number of people arrested for DUI at checkpoints or saturation patrols.   

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.

 


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