Editorial Calls for Replacement of DUI Roadblocks With Roving Police Patrols

December 1, 2009 by David S. Seltzer

As a Fort Lauderdale drunk driving criminal defense attorney, I was pleased to see a Nov. 28 editorial in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel pointing out major problems with sobriety checkpoints. These are the roadblocks set up by police, in which they stop every driver (or one out of every few drivers) passing that point to check for signs of intoxication. As the editorial points out, these DUI checkpoints are particularly popular around the holidays, when law enforcement expects more drunk drivers on the road. However, the editorial says, sobriety roadblocks are extremely ineffective compared to roving law enforcement patrols, in which officers simply take to the streets and actively look for drunk drivers.

According to the article, written by Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute, roving patrols are both cheaper to taxpayers and better at catching drunk drivers than checkpoints. To illustrate this, it uses several examples from other states. For example, in Delaware, the 2008 holiday season saw 30 arrests at DUI checkpoints. During the same time period, roving patrols of officers arrested 276 more drivers. In fact, the article says, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation says roving patrols are 10 times more effective than roadblocks. One reason the article gives for this is that at checkpoints, officers wait for drunk drivers to come to them, while roving patrols actively seek offenders. It also notes that once one driver knows where a checkpoint is, it isn’t hard for that driver to warn friends via cell phone or Internet. Furthermore, it notes that checkpoints can cost as much as $10,000, while roving patrols can cost as little as $300.

As a South Florida DUI defense lawyer, I would like to add that there are serious legal and philosophical problems with sobriety checkpoints as well. By design, sobriety checkpoints pull over everyone who passes, regardless of whether there’s a reasonable suspicion that the drivers pulled over are intoxicated. Under normal circumstances, any charges resulting from a stop made without probable cause would be illegal under the Fourth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the checkpoints themselves are legal, even though they violate our constitutional right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, because of their contribution to public safety. Some defense attorneys call this the “DUI exception” to the Constitution. Several states have outlawed sobriety checkpoints, but Florida is not one of those states.

As a Miami drunk driving defense attorney, I am uncomfortable with the “DUI exception” to the Constitution. I understand the importance of taking drunk drivers off the streets -- but I do not believe that goal should be attained at the expense of our civil rights. And if the facts presented by this article are true, law enforcement may not even be finding intoxicated drivers in the most financially efficient or practical manner. In my criminal practice, I’ve certainly met people who were not intoxicated enough to be pulled over by a passing cop, but who were nabbed at a roadblock by officers who took their nervousness as an admission of guilt. Sobriety roadblocks implicitly accuse everyone who passes by of being a criminal until they prove otherwise, which is offensive, mildly absurd and even a bit of a threat. If they also don’t work well, we should focus government resources on something better.