A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Sobriety checkpoints? Better not

Written February 15th, 2015 by Hasso Hering
The open road: Oregon barred sobriety checkpoints in 1987.

The open road: Oregon barred sobriety checkpoints in 1987.

On Monday morning, the state Senate Business and Transportation Committee will consider a bill to allow roadblocks to check if drivers are impaired by alcohol or drugs. The legalization of recreational marijuana adds a new wrinkle to the old debate about sobriety checkpoints, but we still don’t need them.

Sen. Rod Monroe

Sen. Rod Monroe

The bill on Monday’s agenda is SB 13 by Sen. Rod Monroe, a Portland Democrat who has tried to legalize these checkpoints for years. This year, along with SB 13, he proposed HJR 3, a constitutional amendment, without which the bill alone would be pointless.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that sobriety checkpoints violate the state constitution. In1990, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the practice did not violate the federal guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure, but the Oregon ban was unaffected. Also in 1990, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published guidelines for how checkpoints should be conducted, and Monroe’s bill would require Oregon police to follow those.

The federal guide says that to be federally constitutional, checkpoints either have to stop and question all drivers coming through, or they must pick a “nondiscretional” sample, such as every 10th one. Officers are to ask drivers if they have had any alcohol or controlled substance today. If they say no and officers see or smell nothing to doubt them, the motorists are to be allowed to go on.

According to the guidelines, officers are to watch for the odor of alcholol or marijuana, bloodshot eyes, alcohol containers or drug paraphernalia in the vehicle, fumbling fingers, slurred speech, inconsistent responses, or the detection of alcohol by a “passive sensor.”

If there’s any indication of being impaired, the driver is to be asked to step out of the car, the car is to be moved by someone else to a safe spot out of the driving lane, and the driver is to be given the standard tests for being drunk or impaired.

So if your eyes are bloodshot because you’ve had a sleepless night, you might be singled out and asked to perform tricks like standing on one foot or bringing your right index finger to the tip of your nose. Or this might happen if your fingers “fumbled,” perhaps because all the flashing lights made you jittery.

By the way, the guidelines call for the police to give the media advance notice of plannned roadblocks, and the press presumably would make this information public. That would be one more reason for habitual drunks to read the local papers or check online. That would be an upside.

Also, avoiding a roadblock would be no reason for the police to chase you down. The guidelines are specific: If a driver, seeing a roadblock, turns around without committing a traffic violation, the police have no legal reason for pursuit.

No matter how benign, though, sobriety checkpoints still weaken a basic principle: Before making a stop that could lead to a criminal charge, the police must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Otherwise we step on a slippery slope. Today we might just check for people who are a menace because they’re drunk. Tomorrow we might want to check for anybody on an anti-terror watch list. The day after that, we might stop everybody to see if anyone has a warrant out. That’s a slope down which we do not want to slip. (hh)

17 responses to “Sobriety checkpoints? Better not”

  1. James Carrick says:

    Isn’t this a rehash (no pun intended) of the same issue publicly debated in the 70’s with particular regard to alcohol? Don’t the same findings and rulings prevail? What as reported here about them, seem lacking?
    We have a right to probable cause requirements. That was settled long ago. Do we need an increased dominance over us by government to be better people? If the current guidelines aren’t good enough for today, someone will need to tell me why.

  2. Warren Beeson says:

    A good Prog never gives up! Monroe is a good Prog. Perhaps what we really need is an “Impaired Legislator” blockage. Set up checkpoints at random entrances to the capitol and check legislators for lack of cognitive thinking ability when they seek entry. The operative assumption is that they are impaired unless proven otherwise. Signs of impaired thinking would be, for example: wearing a “Kitzhaber for Governor” button, possession of a campaign speech, and most certainly any “Go Ducks” insignia. This just emphasizes once again, Will Rogers comment to the effect that we were all in danger as long as the legislature is in session.

    • James Carrick says:

      I was with you until you unwisely brought the Ducks into your argument. Just as many Duck fans have common sense as Beaver fans, maybe more.
      You owe Duck fans an apology for that one, Warren.

      • Warren Beeson says:

        How about, “Duck fans don’t have much of a sense of humor either”, James. Just jerking your chain a little; as you were probably doing to me as well. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt even though you’re a Duck fan.

        • James Carrick says:

          Just leave your sports loyalties at the door when you start talking politics. You seemed to be insinuating Duck fans are more liberal than Beaver fans. A generation or two ago, that may have been true. It’s not any more. Just look at last years election results on a precinct by precinct basis. Corvallis is every bit as “blue” as Eugene these days in case your own eyes don’t tell you so. That old stereotype is now only a myth.
          I have no desire to live in either of those two “People’s Democratic Republics.” Linn County and Albany are just fine with me.

          GO DUCKS! :-)

  3. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    A conservative-led majority on the Supremes did acknowledge that suspicionless stops violate a fundamental constitutional right, but reasoned that sobriety checks are necessary to reduce drunk driving. One law professor aptly referred to this as “the DUI exception to the Constitution.”

    Liberals want a “living” constitution, and in this case they got it – from conservatives.

    Will Oregon adopt the DUI exception in its constitution? I hope not.

  4. Ray Kopczynski says:

    What is the inherent difference between a sobriety checkpoint and what Califonia does for “invasive species?” http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/plant/pe/ExteriorExclusion/borders.html

    I would suggest that removing drunks from the road should be more paramount…

    • Hasso Hering says:

      If you mean the California border checks for plants that could ruin the state’s economy, I think the difference is that the state might confiscate your fruit but does not charge you with a crime. (hh)

      • Ray Kopczynski says:

        True enough. However, if you’re caught driving drunk, you *should* be charged with a crime…

    • James Carrick says:

      Ray. A quote from a founding father for you to consider:

      “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
      ~Benjamin Franklin

      • Ray Kopczynski says:

        Driving drunk is an essential liberty? Not in my book!

        • James Carrick says:

          I NEVER said that, nor did Franklin make that claim, and for you to twist Franklin’s quote, while ignoring his admonition is VERY disingenuous, Ray.

          I was referring to the “liberty” that requires probable cause. Surely as a public servant you can do better than that. You’re sure not fostering much confidence in your suitability for your post on the council.

        • Hasso Hering says:

          I think he meant that the essential liberty is not to be stopped by the police without cause. And if I’m driving home from grocery shopping, the police have no legitimate reason to stop me. They can catch drunk drivers by watching traffic and pulling over anybody not driving within the lanes or giving other signs of impaired driving. Doing that takes one cop. Running a roadblock according to the federal guidelines requires a whole platoon of uniformed officers plus a drug recognition technician, plus elaborate preparations and debriefings. So there’s no need to inconvenience a lot of people who have done nothing wrong. (hh)

          • James Carrick says:

            Precisely Hasso. Thank you.

          • Ray Kopczynski says:

            I go back to my original comment about the CA agricultural stations to stop everyone. Seriously splitting hairs for a difference IMO. I have no qualms whatsoever having a minor “inconvenience” (and that is all that it is). I will also say unequivicoally the same should apply when recreational marijuana becomes legal…

    • Bill Kapaun says:

      Apparently you think we should be “like California”? There’s a reason they are fleeing their state.

  5. David Ballard says:

    A slippery slope indeed.


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