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DUI checkpoints: Are we safer?

Cops say DUI checkpoints save lives, but civil libertarians question their constitutionality.

Police Officer Gary Harrison administers a sobriety test to a suspect during the DUI checkpoint at Aramingo and Butler run by the Accident Investigation Division in North Philly, Friday, July 19, 2013.
Police Officer Gary Harrison administers a sobriety test to a suspect during the DUI checkpoint at Aramingo and Butler run by the Accident Investigation Division in North Philly, Friday, July 19, 2013.Read more

A MIDDLE-AGED Hispanic man steps out of his car on Aramingo Avenue with an ear-to-ear smile and his hands in the air. It's strange, because the cops never told him to raise his hands.

He solicits a couple fist bumps, inexplicably, as he strolls across the street to one of the red chairs reserved for visibly intoxicated drivers awaiting a sobriety test at a recent Port Richmond DUI checkpoint.

When police aren't looking, his eyes roll around, but that jovial smile remains plastered on his face.

"Dinner. One wine," he says. "That's all."


Meanwhile, a drug-recognition expert is grilling a construction worker who looks a little too drowsy. "My eyes are always bloodshot," the driver insists. "I had a lazy eye, but I had surgery."

A jittery white man in an Eagles shirt and Air Jordan sandals is rubbing his hands together, even though it's a muggy night in July. He'd earlier denied taking any drugs. Then, he admitted, Adderall. And Vicodin. "You gotta see my tooth!" he said, apparently by way of explanation.

And Lt. James McCarrick doesn't need to conduct a field sobriety test to tell that the Asian gentleman with a ponytail had one too many cocktails. "Oh, that guy looks wasted," McCarrick says. "He's got that gait."

No, there's nothing funny about drunk driving. But DUI checkpoints? They're practically their own genre of cop humor among the late-night officers who run them. They've seen it all, heard every excuse.

"They'll try anything," said McCarrick, who has been running Philadelphia's checkpoints for the past eight years. "It's pretty comical at times. It turns into a road show."

There was the guy who rolled in with an open 40-ounce bottle of beer in his hand, the doofus who forgot about a couple pounds of marijuana sitting on the passenger seat and the drunk who'd tried to convince police that he hadn't just fled the scene of an accident - despite the freshly deployed air bags.

"I've had people having sex behind the wheel. That's how oblivious they are," McCarrick said. "She's on his lap, you know what I mean."

Are we safer?

On any given night, they're cruising Philly's streets, totally blasted, sometimes completely unaware that they're even approaching a DUI checkpoint, despite the fluorescent signs, cones and bright lights.

"If there was an airplane in distress, I could say, 'Follow the checkpoint lights,' and they could land on the strip. It's that illuminated," McCarrick said.

But do checkpoints actually make the roads safer? And isn't stopping drivers without probable cause or reasonable suspicion a violation of their rights?

Those questions still produce different answers around the country, 23 years after a divided Supreme Court ruled on a Michigan case and provided the legal framework for today's checkpoints.

Studies have shown that sobriety checkpoints can reduce alcohol-related crashes by about 20 percent, and that every dollar invested in checkpoints can save communities between $6 and $23 in costs from alcohol-related crashes.

In Pennsylvania, which is one of 38 states that allows sobriety checkpoints, DUI-related fatalities have steadily decreased (404 last year, down from 542 in 2004), even as the number of arrests for people driving under the influence of drugs has increased dramatically (14,953 last year, up from 5,529 in 2004), according to George Geisler of the Pennsylvania DUI Association, which provides technical assistance to law enforcement officials.

"Yes, it's a momentary intrusion, but when you see the number of lives that we save from impaired driving and the crime we get off the street - the drugs, the guns and wanted people - the juice is worth the squeeze," said Geisler, a drug-recognition expert who examined impaired drivers at the recent Port Richmond checkpoint.

But other research has found that "saturation patrols" - where police target a larger geographic area and look for signs of impaired driving, rather than stopping drivers indiscriminately - to be more effective than checkpoints, when measured by DUI arrests per hour.

Civil libertarians and DUI attorneys question whether sobriety checkpoints are a Fourth Amendment violation. The issue gained national attention July 4 when an innocent Tennessee college student posted a video on YouTube of police harassing him and searching his car at a DUI checkpoint. The video went viral and now has more than 4 million views.

"While I recognize the danger of drunk driving, I think the more effective and constitutional way to deal with that is to have officers on patrol, not sitting at a checkpoint," Philadelphia civil-rights attorney David Rudovsky said.

"It's sort of an end run around the Constitution," New Jersey DUI attorney Evan Levow said of checkpoints. "It's like a Checkpoint Charlie."

In 12 states, sobriety checkpoints are not conducted, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Some states prohibit them outright. Texas has determined that checkpoints are illegal under its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Law-enforcement agencies are supposed to announce checkpoints in advance, but Jeff Rudd, who runs, a subscription-based service that tracks checkpoints, said some departments aren't forthcoming.

"In Philadelphia, we've had a hard time finding out the locations and times [of checkpoints], and even if they're doing them," Rudd said.

Deterrent effect

McCarrick has heard the constitutional arguments against checkpoints, and he's taken some heat from rabble-rousing bystanders.

"We'll get the old, 'What, you got nothing better to do than lock up DUIs when murders are going on?' and all that nonsense," he said.

To that, McCarrick asks: What about the thousands of people killed each year in this country by drunk drivers?

"If we lock up nine people that evening, we could've saved somebody," he said. "We could have saved that individual from taking his car and wrapping it around a tree. So, to me, no matter what, it's a positive."

Sobriety checkpoints, in general, are often misunderstood. Contrary to popular belief, they're not designed to entrap drivers, and they typically don't produce large numbers of arrests. In fact, Philadelphia's checkpoints, run by 18 officers on weekends from March through September, usually produce only eight to 13 arrests a night after stopping hundreds of drivers in areas where drunk driving is prevalent, according to police data.

The main purpose, police say, is to create a visual deterrent to impaired driving, so people will make other transportation arrangements if they're going out drinking.

"It's public safety and awareness. That's the overall goal," said Capt. John Wilczynski, commanding officer of the Accident Investigation Division in North Philly. "It's never about catching people, but if they are impaired, they get arrested."

McCarrick said he doesn't mind disclosing the location of checkpoints (see the Daily News map of recent checkpoints). And, at least in Philly, police will not pursue drivers if they turn before entering the two-block "chute" where stops are being conducted.

"If you see that sucker, you can just turn," McCarrick said.

During the stops, which usually last less than 20 seconds, officers will ask drivers a couple quick questions, shine a light in their car and, if there's no reason to detain them, hand them a flier about the dangers of drunk driving.

"Most of the people, especially when they're sober, are happy to see you," McCarrick said.

But recent stories about government overreach - including by the National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service and Drug Enforcement Administration - has some privacy-minded drivers questioning the need for random stops.

"Checkpoints are what dictatorships do," said Darren Wolfe, 53 of Royersford, who participated in a checkpoint protest in Montgomery County last year and videotaped police pulling over drivers who turned around.

"When people have no privacy, the government can just stop you and ask you what you're doing and take a look at you for whatever whimsical reason they come up with," Wolfe said. "We do not live in a free society anymore."