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During his annual "State of the State" address last month, Gov. Jim Doyle proclaimed "It is time for us to confront the problems of drunk driving in this state."
Not surprisingly, the line drew applause. Not many politicians campaign on the "we need more wasted drivers" platform.
When Doyle continued, though, lawmakers responded differently.
"Let's work to allow law enforcement officers to set up controlled, reasonable sobriety checkpoints," Doyle said.
The applause quickly ended. In its place rose a low murmur of muffled groans and a few boos.
Sobriety checkpoints represent a controversial issue in Wisconsin, a state in which casual, responsible alcohol consumption and its dangerous cousin -- binge drinking -- are part of the culture.
Currently, Wisconsin is one of 12 states that does not allow police to set up roadblocks to investigate the possibility that operators are too impaired to drive. (The other states are Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington and Wyoming).
Many lawmakers and agencies like the American Civil Liberties Union would like to keep it that way. Though they recognize drunk driving as an important safety and public health issue, they fear that roadblocks are expensive and intrude upon constitutional rights. That is an opinion shared by civil libertarians and powerful lobby groups like the Wisconsin Tavern League. "When the Governor mentioned (checkpoints) during his State of the State address, we stressed our disappointment," said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. "We think it's very expensive in terms of what you get out of it. It's really a matter of deterrence. Even Chief (Edward) Flynn (of the Milwaukee Police Department) has said that.
"We urged the Governor and the legislature to focus on other means of enforcement. There have got to be other ways that don't impinge on the rights of innocent people than the "supsicion-less stop."
Supporters of sobriety checkpoints -- led by influential groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- counter with statistical data indicating a reduction in fatalities and reports of a "chilling" effect on dangerous drinking and driving behavior.
"Federal research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that sobriety checkpoints reduce alcohol-related crashes and fatalities by up to 24 percent," said Laura Dean-Mooney, who is in her first year as MADD national president.
"Checkpoints are one of the most effective tools we have to deter drunk driving."
The American Beverage Institute respectfully disagrees with MADD's position.
"By calling for roadblocks and mandating breathalyzers for first-time offenders, regardless of their blood alcohol content level, MADD is ignoring the root cause of today's drunk driving problem -- hard core alcohol abusers," American Beverage Institute Managing Director Sarah Longwell said in a recent press release.
"Because they are highly visible by design and publicized in advance, roadblocks are all too easily avoided by the chronic alcohol abusers who comprise the core of today's drunk driving problem. That leaves adults who enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner, a beer at a ball game, or a champagne toast at a wedding to be harassed at checkpoints."
WISCONSIN NEEDS SOBRIETY CHECKPOINTS BECAUSE ...
- A total of 38 other states think that they are effective tools in combating drunk driving.
- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that sobriety checkpoints are legal. The Court ruled that government interest in preventing drunken driving outweighs the brief intrusion on individuals who are stopped at roadblocks.
- Checkpoints are typically publicized in advance and signs are posted at the approaches to the checkpoints warning drivers that a checkpoint is ahead.
- Vehicles are stopped in a specific sequence -- every third, fourth, fifth or sixth vehicle -- in order to avoid charges of racial profiling.
- The goal of checkpoints is not to make arrests, but to act as a deterrent. The publicity surrounding checkpoints reminds people not to drink and drive and can result in many groups designating a driver.
- Research shows that law-abiding people are sent on their way within minutes, with the average length of a stop equal to the cycle of a stoplight.
- Nearly 41 percent of the more than 17,000 auto crashes that led to fatalities in the U.S. in 2006 involved alcohol. Alcohol-related crashes cost society over $100 billion.
- Proponents say that checkpoints reduce drunk driving by close to 20 percent.
WISCONSIN SHOULD NOT HAVE SOBRIETY CHECKPOINTS BECAUSE ...
- They violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
- Innocent people are inconvenienced by checkpoints.
- Checkpoints take away the presumption of innocence, which is part of the foundation of our judicial system.
- Fewer than one percent of drivers stopped at checkpoints are arrested for drunk driving. Research shows that more conventional methods of law enforcement, including "saturation patrols" of problem areas, result in up to three times more arrests.
- Police often use sobriety checkpoints as a catalyst to write tickets for expired registration, motor vehicle code violations and other infractions. In this way, checkpoints become revenue generating operations for law enforcement agencies.
- Since drunk driving arrests have declined across the board since sobriety checkpoints have been used, even in states where checkpoints are not used, a case can be made that checkpoints weren't a major factor in the decline.
- The major risk in drunk driving cases comes from hardcore, repeat offenders. Checkpoints lump them in with people who may have had a second glass of wine at dinner.
- Checkpoints lead to hundreds of police hours and thousands of tax dollars.
- Because roadblocks often are publicized in advance, chronic alcohol abusers can plan alternate routes to avoid the areas. Groups like the ACLU feel that most drunk driving accidents are caused by repeat offenders, which speaks to a public health issue as much as a law enforcement issue. "If you want ot get drunks off the road, you have to address the addiction to alcohol," Ahmuty said.
Those are some basic arguments. Use the Talkback feature to let your voice be heard.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.