Thousands stopped, just seven arrested for DUI at checkpoints

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Editor’s Note:  The original story incorrectly referred to probable cause when the correct term is reasonable suspicion. We’ve edited the story to reflect that.

KINGSPORT, TN (WJHL) – If you drive through a DUI checkpoint, police are far more likely to give you a ticket or arrest you for something other than driving under the influence, according to our analysis of state and local police records linked to 10 sobriety checkpoints in Northeast Tennessee last year.

Of the more than 3,300 drivers checked at the police stops, we found only seven people charged with DUI, which is the equivalent of less than 0.2% of all drivers stopped at checkpoints, according to checkpoint logs. The number of arrests does not include the one case prosecutors dismissed.

Critics of the checkpoints said our findings demonstrate proof that DUI checkpoints simply don’t work.

“It’s an ineffective use of law enforcement resources,” defense attorney Don Spurrell said.

Not only does Spurrell think checkpoints are intrusive, he said there’s no proof, other than assumptions, they actually keep the public safe.

“Show me the numbers,” he said. “Show me it works and maybe I’ll agree with it.”

Law enforcement records show more than 3,320 cars passed through DUI checkpoints in six area counties on 10 different nights in 2016.

Most people drove away without any problems, but not Candlelyn Salyer. The 22-year-old’s trip to Kingsport to pick up pizza became more of an ordeal not because she drove drunk, but because of a misdemeanor light law violation.

“They slowed me down and they checked my license and they asked me to pull over,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh gosh.’ I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. He told me it’s illegal to have a headlight out and that I had to get it fixed and he had to give me a ticket. I thought the DUI checkpoints were mainly focused on drunk driving, so I was hoping they’d give me a warning.”

Her misdemeanor ticket for a broken headlight is one of nearly 30 equipment violation citations handed out by police at sobriety checkpoints in 2016 and one of roughly 130 citations or arrests for non-DUI crimes, according to law enforcement records.

Other tickets we discovered cited at DUI checkpoints included lack of registration, seat belt violations, drug possession, improper child restraints and an open container violation.

In any other circumstance, police could’ve never pulled over many of the people cited, including those with driver’s license issues and lack of insurance, to begin with without reasonable suspicion. The checkpoints opened the door for officers to observe the other crimes.

“I think that’s what we call collateral damage,” Lincoln Memorial University Law Professor Stewart Harris said.

In contrast, records show police filed just seven DUI charges, which ironically ties for the seventh most common crime at DUI checkpoints.

“That’s actually an argument against these sort of checkpoints,” Stewart, who hosts the nationally syndicated Your Weekly Constitutional radio show, said.

Harris knows the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of DUI checkpoints almost three decades ago, finding they don’t violate people’s Fourth Amendment rights because the court said the checkpoints help keep the public safe and the intrusion on people’s liberties is brief and reasonable.

“The court essentially balanced those two and said, ‘Nope, if they’re properly done, these DUI checkpoints are ok,'” he said.

However, Harris said at some point, someone will certainly challenge the constitutionality again.

“I could imagine a circumstance where someone who is stopped at a DUI checkpoint who is not drunk, but is then arrested for some other violation would challenge that, saying that ‘This is not the way America operates. You should have to have some sort of probable cause to stop me individually, and what you’re doing is you’re treating me collectively,'” Harris said.

Departments are required to tell the public about upcoming checkpoints.

Kingsport Police Department Public Information Officer Tom Patton said that alone helps educate people and deters drunk driving.

The police officer said one of the goals of checkpoints is to not only arrest some people for DUI, but also proactively keep people from even thinking about drinking and getting on the road.

“We want the public to be aware of the dangers that DUI poses and the fact that we are taking steps as best we can to prevent those,” Patton said.

“We want the people who might be committing these offenses to know that we are out there, we do take it seriously and we will apprehend people and we will prosecute people if we catch them,” he said.

Regionwide, records show half of the checkpoints started and ended without a single DUI arrest.

According to activity logs, KPD officers arrested one person for DUI at all three of its sobriety checkpoints last year.

Patton said that one driver, eventually found guilty in court, is proof enough.

“I think if we got one impaired driver off the road through DUI checkpoints, that’s a win,” Patton said. “That one impaired driver could’ve gone on and killed an entire family.”

Spurrell said the only proof police have in support of these checkpoints in anecdotal.

“I think that is a very poor argument because you don’t know how many people were out endangering the public when you were sitting still at a checkpoint,” Spurrell said.

The state dedicates grant money to help departments pay the salaries of off-duty officers who work the checkpoints. Spurrell said Tennessee could better spend that money by paying police overtime to work the roads away from the checkpoints.

“It doesn’t work,” Spurrell said. “It would be much better for these officers to be patrolling.”

Police said the checkpoints don’t just protect the public from drunk drivers, but also protect the public from drivers breaking other traffic laws, as demonstrated by the numbers of other citations and arrests we found. Officers said just because they’re looking for drunk drivers at checkpoints, doesn’t mean they should turn a blind eye to the non-DUI crimes they’re sworn to enforce.

In fact, when the Tennessee Highway Patrol sends out alerts about upcoming checkpoints, they warn troopers will take corrective actions for other violations they observe.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 12 states currently don’t hold sobriety checkpoints. In the ones that do — including Tennessee and Virginia — police have guidelines they must follow.

Salyer said she sees both sides of the issue.

“I think they could be beneficial,” Salyer said of DUI checkpoints. “Getting a ticket for something else at a DUI checkpoint is kind of unfortunate.”

Though she said she didn’t realize her headlight was out at the time, she said she knows the law is the law.

Lucky for her, she said the court threw out her ticket once she replaced the headlight in question.Copyright 2017 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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