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Are DUI checkpoints straining civil liberties?

Sobriety checkpoints often screen traffic within, or near, Hispanic neighborhoods, where vehicle seizures are disproportionately higher

DUI checkpoints seen as public safety measure; searches, seizure of vehicles challenged

COMPTON — Advocates of police field sobriety checkpoints say they save lives and take impaired motorists off the streets. Others believe DUI checkpoints give police the latitude to exercise abuse and strain civil liberties.

“I think there ought to be a high burden of proof for randomly stopping people with no prior evidence that they’re alcohol-impaired,” says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation. “If the car’s weaving around, certainly. Otherwise, I think that’s a violation of civil liberties. In effect, it’s an illegal search.”

DUI Checkpoints are far more likely to seize cars from unlicensed motorists than catch drunk drivers.  While those found to be DUI can have their car released immediately, those that don’t have insurance, or a license, mainly the poor, face mandatory impounds and huge fees to get their vehicles back, in most cases causing abandonment of the car altogether.

John Bowman, a spokesman for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, a drivers’ advocacy organization, says “The bottom line on the DUI checkpoints, they’re not necessarily about checking people for DUI. They’re meant for screening drivers for technical violations or insurance … (under) a guise of public safety.”

Sobriety checkpoints frequently screen traffic within, or near, Hispanic neighborhoods. Cities where Hispanics represent a majority of the population are seizing cars at three times the rate of cities with small minority populations. In South Gate, a Los Angeles County city where Hispanics make up 92 percent of the population, police confiscated an average of 86 vehicles per operation last fiscal year.

How DUI checkpoints work

Motorist field sobriety is comprised of three tests used by police to determine if a driver is impaired. The tasks assess balance, coordination and the ability of the driver to divide his attention to more than one task during the field sobriety test.

The Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST) is a battery of 3 tests that include the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), the walk-and-turn, and the one-leg stand tests.

These tests have been scientifically proven to validate legal intoxication in drivers suspected of drunken driving in 90 percent of cases if administered by a trained officer.

Results of the test are admissible as evidence in court.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines and describes the three parts of the SFST in detail:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

Horizontal gaze nystagmus is an involuntary “jerking” of the eyeball which happens to everyone when the eyes are rotated at high peripheral angles. When a person is intoxicated, however, the jerking of the eyes becomes more exaggerated and occurs at lesser angles.

Turning the HGN test, the officer will ask the driver to follow a moving object, such as a pen or flashlight, slowly from side to side. The officer looks to determine:

(1) If the eye cannot follow the object smoothly, (2) If jerking is distinct when the eye is at maximum deviation, (3) If the angle of jerking onset is within 45 degrees.

If four or more clues appear between the two eyes, the driver is likely to have a blood-alcohol content (BAC) 0.10 or greater. NHTSA research shows this test to be accurate in 77 percent of test subjects.

Walk-and-Turn Test

For the walk-and-turn test, the officer asks the driver to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along a straight line, turn on one foot and return nine steps in the opposite direction.

During the test, the officer looks for seven indicators of impairment:

(1) If the suspect cannot keep balance while listening to the instructions, (2) Begins before the instructions are finished, (3) Stops while walking to regain balance, (4) Does not touch heel-to-toe, (5)Uses arms to balance, (6) Loses balance while turning, (7) Takes an incorrect number of steps.

If the driver exhibits two or more of the above indicators during the test, there is a 68% likelihood of at BAC level of 0.10 or higher, according to the NHTSA.

One-Leg Stand Test

For the one-leg stand test, the officer asks the driver to stand with one foot about six inches off the ground and count by from 1,001 (one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, etc.) until the officer says to put the foot down.

During the next 30 seconds, the officer looks for these four indicators:

(1) Swaying while balancing, (2) Using arms to balance, (3) Hopping to maintain balance, (4) Putting the foot down.

If the driver exhibits two or more of the above indicators, there is a 65 percent chance he has a BAC of 0.10 or greater, according to the NHSTA.

If the driver fails any of the above field sobriety tests, the officer will then ask the suspect to take a breath test or a chemical test to confirm their blood-alcohol content.

Other Reasons for Failing the Tests

There are many reasons that people who are not intoxicated might not be able to perform the above tests successfully, including certain medical conditions, disabilities, age, injury, and taking certain medication.

Wearing contact lenses, for example, could affect the HGN test results.

The officer usually will ask the driver if there is a reason that they may not be able to pass the test and makes a note of their answer in his arrest report.

If there is a legitimate reason, medical or otherwise, why you might fail one or more parts of the field sobriety test make sure you mention it to so that the officer makes a note of it in the official record. It might be helpful to you in court later.

What to do at DUI checkpoints

When approaching DUI checkpoints, the best thing to do is remain calm, follow the officers instructions as well as the flow of traffic. Asking for proof of ID and registration is not in violation of your civil rights and the practice of traffic stops has been upheld by the Supreme Court to help protect the safety and well being of all drivers on the road.

You can also politely refuse all field sobriety tests, refuse to answer any questions about drinking, and politely refuse the field breathalyzer, but would have to take a blood or breath test for evidential purposes, or lose your license for one year.

Courtesy of Verywell, a health blog for reliable, understandable information on hundreds of health and wellness topics.

Content from Robert Miller & Associates contributed to this post.

Featured image: A UC Irvine police officer chats with a motorist during a DUI checkpoint on California St. Photo: Flickr/UC Irvine

Compton Herald is a digital news publication providing clear, fair and current news, information and commentary about Compton, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Los Angeles County, California, and the world.

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