Are sobriety checkpoints effective? Worth the cost?

In Tennessee and most of the United States, law enforcement engages in sobriety checkpoints to catch drunk drivers. These roadblocks are generally set up to test a random sample of all drivers who encounter them. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, if properly set-up, a DUI checkpoint does not violate a driver’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. But do they work?

A large majority of the North Dakota House of Representatives appears to think they do not. The body passed a bill, 79 to 14, to end DUI checkpoints in that state. While the bill’s sponsor does have some Fourth Amendment concerns over the checkpoints, his main issue is cost-effectiveness.

He argues that saturation patrols — large numbers of police on the roadways looking for evidence of drunk driving — are much more effective at discovering drunk drivers than checkpoints are.

“The cold hard fact… is that sobriety checkpoints are terrible at apprehending drunk drivers,” he said. “They fail miserably at apprehending. There’s really not much debate on that aspect.”

As evidence for that claim, he pointed out a study on the effectiveness of DUI checkpoints. It found that 63 percent of drivers who were over the legal limit were able to slip through sobriety checkpoints without being caught. This may be due to the random assignment of drivers who get checked. If you’re not chosen, you’re generally not checked at all.

The bill’s sponsor argues that saturation patrols will find the same number of drunk drivers or more as a sobriety checkpoint would and at substantially less cost.

“So, when someone wants to talk about ‘keeping a tool in the toolbox’ if it keeps one drunk driver off the road… Wrong,” he argued. “When we take limited manhours and put them in a sobriety checkpoint, you do get that one drunk driver off the road. True. However, you did it at the cost of a saturation patrol which would have gotten three drunk drivers off the road. Therefore, your decision to use that crappy tool left two drunk drivers on the road.”

Sobriety checkpoints are legal in Tennessee, but talk to your lawyer

It’s unclear whether the North Dakota Senate will also vote to end sobriety checkpoints in that state, or whether the governor would sign such a measure.

Either way, the use of proper DUI roadblocks is legal in Tennessee. That said, there are constitutional issues that can arise, depending on how the roadblock was organized and operated. If you were arrested for DUI at a sobriety checkpoint, don’t assume you have no defense. Sit down with an experienced defense attorney right away and discuss the situation in detail.

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