Drunk driving checkpoints test personal liberties

North Dakota is known for many things, but two of its defining characteristics might be its long, open highways and its citizens’ purported propensity for drinking. With this in mind, the Legislature is once again re-evaluating how it contends with drunk driving.

HB 1442 would stop law enforcement officers from conducting scheduled DUI checkpoints in which all drivers on the road are stopped for questioning. The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said checkpoints are ineffective and “outdated.” By relying on them, “We’re choosing to keep drunk drivers on the road,” he said in an interview following his testimony on the bill.

Becker introduced similar legislation in 2015 and 2017 due to concerns about personal liberty and how DUI checkpoints might infringe on the Fourth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that sobriety checkpoints do not violate the constitution. However, 10 state constitutions specifically prohibit them and they are not conducted in all states, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Becker said the focus of debate in the past has always been about the constitutionality of DUI checkpoints rather than their efficacy. “That argument came and it lost,” Becker said. In 2017, the bill was voted down in the House, 41-46.

This time around, Becker’s committee testimony focused solely on sobriety checkpoints as an inefficient procedure that should be prohibited in order to encourage other enforcement means. He acknowledged that law enforcement receives grant money through the Department of Transportation to conduct sobriety checkpoints, but he said this money is also available for conducting saturation patrols, in which a dedicated patrol focuses on stopping drivers who seem like they may be intoxicated.

“What harm is it?”

“What harm is it having it in there?” Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, said in committee after hearing Becker cite the superior effectiveness of saturation patrols in arresting drunk drivers.

The majority of DUI checkpoints in the state are organized through the North Dakota State Highway Patrol working with smaller law enforcement agencies. The Highway Patrol is taking a neutral stance on HB 1442, but Sgt. Wade Kadrmas said they regularly conduct sobriety checkpoints in conjunction with saturation patrols, and he believes checkpoints continue to be a useful tool.

Checkpoints are typically conducted around large public events and must be publicized a week in advance. Their primary function, according to Kadrmas, is deterrence.

“We’re not just setting up on some road to interfere with people’s movement,” Kadrmas said. “We’re trying to utilize statistics whether it’s from crashes or law enforcement arrests to help deter DUI drivers.”

Russ Rader, with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said in an interview that “progress has largely stalled” in combatting drunk driving.

“This is an area where we made a lot of progress in the 1980s and early 1990s,” Rader said. “We still have about the same proportion of drivers killed in crashes who have BACs of 0.08 or higher now as we did 20 years ago.” https://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/alcohol-and-drugs/fatalityfacts/alcohol-and-drugs/2017

According to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, alcohol is a factor in 40 percent to 50 percent of fatal crashes in the state each year. The percent of alcohol-related crashes decreased annually between 2013 and 2016 but increased in 2017. https://www.dot.nd.gov/divisions/safety/docs/crash-summary.pdf

Rader said the reason for this stall in progress is likely because drunk driving is no longer getting the attention it used to in the face of more modern problems like texting while driving. He, like Kadrmas, said both sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols can aide in enforcement visibility.

“Some people mistake these saturation patrols as being all about catching and arresting drunk drivers,” Rader said. “The goal should in fact be creating an atmosphere of deterrence.”

Complicated law

Beyond seeking to keep drunk drivers off the road, the Legislature is also looking at changes that might be made to how those suspected of being intoxicated are tested.

“DUI law is the most complicated law we have on the planet,” Aaron Birst, representing the States Attorneys Association, said before testifying on HB 1534, which deals with the specifics of DUI procedure.

Under North Dakota law, it is a criminal offense to refuse intoxication testing if you are stopped while driving, carrying the same charges as a DUI. Under HB 1534, law enforcement officers would not need to inform citizens stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence that refusing to take a test is itself a crime.

“No other crime do we tell somebody, ‘Hey, these are the consequences,'” Birst said.

After several committee members raised concerns about this aspect of the bill, Judiciary Chairman Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, asked Birst to return to the committee with amendments that would require law enforcement officers to inform citizens about the consequences of refusing an intoxication test.

Becker also raised concerns about a section of the bill that would allow law enforcement officers to administer roadside saliva tests for controlled substances such as marijuana or methamphetamines.

No saliva tests of this kind are approved by the state’s crime lab, according to Birst, but he said it was important to have this wording in the state’s code because they are currently vetting such tests and would like to be able to implement them quickly if approved.

A spokesperson for the state crime lab could not confirm that the lab is vetting such tests and would not comment on other aspects of the pending legislation.

Both HB 1442 and HB 1534 have been heard by committee, but no vote has been taken.

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