Legislator considers changing stance on DUI checkpoints, THP and MADD still support them

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BRISTOL, TN (WJHL) – Sen. Jon Lundberg (R), District 4, says law enforcement should re-evaluate the use of DUI checkpoints after our investigation found they rarely lead to driving under the influence arrests, but the Tennessee Highway Patrol and Mothers Against Drunk Driving are standing behind the enforcement effort.

According to state records, THP stopped more than 28,000 cars statewide at DUI checkpoints in 2016 and filed 157 DUI charges as a result. The DUI arrest rate equates to roughly 0.6%. The number of actual DUI charges is less than the number of actual DUI checkpoints.

Our investigation previously found of more than 3,300 cars stopped at sobriety checkpoints in Northeast Tennessee in 2016, officers arrested seven people for DUI. Prosecutors dismissed one of the cases.

The numbers staggered Sen. Lundberg, who previously said he was a longtime supporter of DUI checkpoints.

“Wow,” he said. “That surprises me. That would make me rethink my stance on them. I didn’t realize it was nearly that low.”

THP records reveal you’re more likely to drive away with one of five other kinds of tickets at checkpoints, including driver’s license, seat belt, light law and registration violations.

Registration Law350
Safety Belt Law232
Light Law224
Other DL Law171
Misdemeanor Drug143
Child Restraint Device Law64
Equipment Law28
Open Container20
Felony Drug10
Juveile Offender6
Commercial Vehicle3

Source:  Tennessee Highway Patrol

“I am surprised frankly also that law enforcement would continue to do that if the effective rate was that low,” he said. “I would think they would have a better chance of catching drunk drivers, following them or watching them on the side of the road.”

The numbers out of Johnson City show police arrested more people in 2016 and pulled over fewer people when they took part in targeted patrols, but MADD argues those saturation patrols are more effective when combined with sobriety checkpoints.

“They can be used in combination with sobriety checkpoints, but are not as effective when used alone,” MADD Tennessee State Program Director Kate Ritchie said. “Frequent, highly publicized sobriety checkpoints work – in fact, they’re among the most effective drunk driving deterrents.”

THP Lt. Bill Miller says he is certain if you removed sobriety checkpoints from the agency’s arsenal of enforcement efforts, more drunk drivers would get behind the wheel.

“We do know that that will increase more drunks on the roadway, because they do not have that fear that we’re going to be out there to arrest them and take them to jail for violating the law and putting everybody at the risk,” he said. “We believe they do work and we do believe they are successful.”

Agencies advertise the checkpoints in advance, hoping people will get the message. Lt. Miller says if troopers arrest just one person for DUI, the effort is a success.

“If you look at the numbers, that’s really not a fair representation of how the sobriety checkpoints work, because there’s no way that you’re going be able to gauge the outreach that you have as far as how many people decide to not drive and decide to download an app and take a sober ride,” he said. “These checkpoints are about detecting and enforcing and educating and also deterring drivers not to drive under the influence.”

Metropolitan Nashville Police Department reports three DUI arrests out of more than 600 vehicles stopped at its two DUI checkpoints in 2016.

We’re still waiting on the statistics from the Memphis Police Department. A spokesperson for the Knoxville Police Department previously said the agency no longer holds DUI checkpoints.

Sen. Lundberg remains puzzled by both our local and statewide discoveries. In a way, he says he’s glad the numbers are so low, because they are perhaps a sign fewer people are driving drunk. However, on the other hand, he can’t help but wonder if the government could better spend its resources.

“You kind of shattered my expectations of what they would’ve been,” Sen. Lundberg said. “Is there a deterrent effect? I’d give that some merit, but if the results are 3,300 go through and you’ve got seven charges, then I don’t know about the effectiveness. I think that it’s also a discussion that law enforcement is having to go, ‘Is it an effective use of manpower?'”

He said THP’s statewide numbers are also “much lower” than he would’ve anticipated.

Lt. Miller said THP constantly evaluates areas for improvement.

“This conversation is a very healthy conversation,” Lt. Miller said. “We welcome this conversation, but we do understand and we do know that our checkpoints work, and we’re constantly reevaluating to make sure we find other tools that will detect more and more drunk drivers.”

Despite the criticism of roadblocks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates publicized sobriety checkpoints as the most effective enforcement activity for deterrence. NHTSA cites a 2012 Centers for Disease Control review of 15 studies that found checkpoints reduce alcohol-related fatal crashes by 9%, with additional data analysis finding checkpoints reduce overall alcohol-related crashes by 17% and all crashes by 10-15%. NHTSA also reports checkpoints are the most costly enforcement activity for deterrence, saying the typical checkpoint costs between $5,000 to $7,000.

MADD argues the savings are well worth the investment.

“For every dollar invested in a checkpoint, communities save between $6 and $23 in costs from alcohol-related crashes,” Ritchie said. “If done correctly, checkpoints can be done with as few as 3-5 officers.”

Ritchie says the primary goal of a checkpoint is not to arrest people, but instead to deter drunk driving.

“Because they are highly publicized, it’s the perceived risk of being caught that keeps many drunk drivers off the roadways,” she said.

CDC reports the number of arrests at checkpoints should not be used as a measure of checkpoint effectiveness.

“The number of drivers evaluated at checkpoints would be a more appropriate measure,” the federal agency said.

In addition to the 157 DUI charges, THP reports issuing more than 2,000 other citations and arrests, including 20 open container charges, 10 felony drug charges and 143 misdemeanor drug charges at its 2016 DUI checkpoints. According to THP statistics, the agency issued 228 warnings, seized seven vehicles, seized seven weapons and distributed 737 pieces of safety literature.Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.

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