Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Sen. John Carona proposes best sobriety checkpoint bill I’ve ever opposed
The bill focuses the tactic in tightly on its stated goal of reducing drunk driving while avoiding Big Brother-esque pitfalls and revenue generation schemes that make civil libertarians wince at the tactic.
I'm not a fan, at all, of "sobriety checkpoints" on the roadways. Having grown up in the Cold War era, the whole idea has a bit too much of a "Can I see your papers, Comrade?" flavor to it for my tastes. Checkpoints where armed, uniformed agents of the state stop and question average citizens driving down the street were the kind of thing we used to point to under Communism in the old Soviet Union and say, "That doesn't happen in America."
But today, in many states, it does. And perhaps soon in Texas, too.
That said, SB 298 by Sen. John Carona authorizing sobriety checkpoints is one of the best efforts I've seen to focus the tactic in tightly on its stated goal of reducing drunk driving while avoiding Big Brother-esque pitfalls and revenue generation schemes that make civil libertarians wince at the tactic. Carona's bill was placed on yesterday's "intent calendar" in the senate (meaning it was eligible to be debated and voted on), but was usurped on the agenda by debates over higher education and the top ten percent rule. It could be voted on in the Texas Senate as soon as today.
I still oppose sobriety checkpoints and thus on principle I oppose this bill. I just don't like the idea of police stopping motorists without probable cause, believing traditional DWI enforcement tactics work better and are less invasive. But if you think drunk driving is so bad that it warrants use of more totalitarian tactics, the limits Sen. Carona places on checkpoints are a laudable effort to address the main criticisms of the practice while still authorizing its use.
Here's a summary of the legislation, which passed 9-0 out of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee:
* Law enforcement agencies may establish sobriety checkpoints for the sole purpose of enforcing drunk driving laws, not as a way to check for warrants, liability insurance, etc..
* Agencies must put procedures for choosing sites and operating checkpoints in writing and publish them online along with dates and times (but not locations) of the checkpoints.
* Procedures for selecting who to stop must be "reasonably predictable and nonarbitrary."
* "The criteria for selecting the location ... must include the number of traffic accidents in the vicinity ... in which the use of alcohol was a factor ... in the preceding 12 months and the number of arrests for intoxication-related offenses in that vicinity in the preceding 12 months."
* Signs ahead of the checkpoint must advise oncoming motorists it's coming up.
* Officers conducting the checkpoint must wear uniforms.
* Encounters with motorists must be videotaped. (Note: Shouldn't there be audio?)
* Officers may not ask to see motorists' drivers' license or insurance unless there is reasonable susupicion to believe they've committed an offense.
* Each stop should take less than three minutes unless there is reasonable suspicion to think an offense has been committed, and police must make "reasonable efforts" to ensure each stop won't take more than one minute.
* The total time motorists must wait to get through the checkpoint should not exceed ten minutes, and "reasonable efforts" must be made to get traffic through in less than five.
* "A law enforcement agency may not operate a sobriety checkpoint at one location for more than four hours and may not operate a checkpoint at the same location more than once in a 12-month period. For the purposes of this subsection, sobriety checkpoints located within one mile of each other are considered to be at the same location."
* Finally, records about the event - including time, location, duration, procedures, number of stops and arrests, and which officers were involved - must be maintained for at least five years.
That's a pretty nifty piece of bill writing.
I've long believed the reason law enforcement so badly wants "sobriety checkpoints" was as a platform for revenue generation schemes, either nabbing the 10% of Texas drivers with outstanding arrest warrants or the 25% with no liability insurance. But this proposal essentially eliminates those motives by disallowing officers from asking for ID without reasonable suspicion and videotaping the encounter. That forces agencies to operate sobriety checkpoints transparently, without improperly expanding their focus to other areas.
Carona has crafted a serious, interesting compromise on a subject that's been a biennial source of bitter contention. Indeed, part of me almost wants to support SB 298 just so we can stop fighting about it at the Lege every two years and move onto something else.
This is by far the best sobriety checkpoint bill I've ever opposed.
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