DWI Offenders and Drunk Drivers in Texas May Soon Be Caught by Sobriety Checkpoints

Over the past several months, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission has been conducting undercover sting operations in bars with hopes that the more intoxicated patrons they arrested, the fewer drunk people would be driving on the roads and lower the number of DWI tickets written.  Although the intentions were noble, the complaints brought against the TABC were not without merit and their undercover operations have now been shut down for the past month (since the commission was brought before the Texas Legislature on April 17th, 2006). 

Now, in the wake of the April 17th meeting, Texas Police Departments are in search of other means to combat drunk driving and lower DWI offenses – a goal not only propelled by a determination to make our roads safer, but also to lose the stigma of having been the state with the most alcohol-related fatalities in motor vehicle accidents from 2000 until 2003.  There are currently many different methods that could be utilized to aid in these efforts. 

One method that is currently used in 39 states would be sobriety checkpoints.  The only deterrent would be that Texas does not currently have legislation that allows for them.  Sobriety checkpoints are technically roadblocks set up and run by city police departments.  At these checkpoints, each car is stopped and the police officers stationed there ask each driver a series of questions.  The questions range from where the driver is going, what they have been doing that evening, and if a suspicion of intoxication is felt, the driver may be asked to get out of their vehicle and perform field sobriety tests.  Although they are called sobriety checkpoints, it is also an opportunity to write citations for people with a suspended license or those driving without insurance.  In fact, there are significantly more citations written for these two offenses than there are people arrested for DWI. 

The constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints was questioned in 1990 in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz which was tried before the U.S. Supreme Court. The question was whether sobriety checkpoints violated the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees that “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.” On June 14th the Supreme Court passed down their decision on the matter with Chief Justice Rehnquist stating “the balance of the State’s interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonable be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program.”  Four years after this ruling, a case came into the Texas courtrooms regarding the constitutionality of the same sobriety checkpoints.  In Holt v. State, the Texas courts actually found against the sobriety checkpoints saying that without express authorization and implementation by a statewide governing body, sobriety checkpoints are illegal under the guidelines of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

It is important to note, however, that the Texas Legislature technically has the power to draft a bill which, if passed, would require the creation of a statewide governing body to “express authorization and implementation” of sobriety checkpoints.  If this happened, sobriety checkpoints in Texas would be constitutionally sound options for fighting drunk driving.  With the recent pressures of trying to lower drunken driving fatalities, it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that such legislation may be constructed sooner rather than later. 

There are those who maintain sobriety checkpoints violate our Fourth Amendment rights.  Justice Broussard in the Ingersoll v. Palmer decision, a California case that upheld the constitutionality of these sobriety checkpoints for their state in 1987, wrote the dissention stating, “To date we have not allowed mass detentions on the theory that these might prove useful in preventing crime… While drunk driving is a revolting crime, it is not the only one which the community abhors.  If we abandon constitutional protections to combat every abhorrent crime which has captured the public’s attention, we will find ourselves naked and unprotected in a hurry.” 

While it would take a long time to organize these governing bodies, the end result would be saving lives and keeping the roadways safer, and not just from drunk drivers, but also from drivers with suspended licenses or no insurance.  There are some who have protested sobriety checkpoints yielding no DWI arrests but that still ticket over 20 drivers for the other two charges, as was the case in California last month.  These few feel taxpayer dollars aren’t being used efficiently since the arrest numbers are so low for sobriety checkpoints in relation to, for example, a DWI Task Force that goes out on patrol to find cars that may have an intoxicated driver behind the wheel.  The police maintain that if they are finding people to ticket, they are further protecting all drivers on the road. 

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