Rep. David Butterfield wants to do away with DUI checkpoints in Utah. He argues that saturation patrols are a much more effective way to get drunken drivers off the road, and the mediocre results of checkpoints do not justify their warrantless searches. He makes a persuasive case.
Utah law enforcement officers insist, however, that the deterrent effect of checkpoints is worthwhile. While they concede that saturation patrols are much more effective in generating DUI arrests, they do not want to give up checkpoints as a tool to discourage drunken driving.
Saturation patrols concentrate officers in areas where drunken driving is known to be a problem, such as near bars. Officers only stop drivers when their driving or behavior creates a reasonable suspicion that they may be impaired.
We support Butterfield's investigation into whether vehicle checkpoints should be banned. His HB140 would eliminate them for purposes of detecting driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or to check license plates, registration, insurance or driver licenses. Before the Legislature votes on such a bill, however, we would like to see more study on the deterrent effect of checkpoints.
When law enforcement officers testified before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee last week, they claimed that checkpoints deter drunken driving. That coincides with common sense, particularly in cases such as holiday weekends at Little Sahara Sand Dunes or Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell where drunken driving has been a deadly problem in the past. Perhaps in certain geography, the checkpoints make sense.
But the officers could not provide anything beyond anecdote to back up their claims of deterrence. It is possible that widespread publicity about saturation patrols on holiday weekends could have the same or better deterrent effect.
By law, officers must obtain written authority from a judge for a checkpoint. It must specify a plan for the checkpoint, including its location and hours of operation. This is a fig leaf of constitutional protection against warrantless searches, but its real effect is to publicize checkpoints. However, saturation patrols also could be publicized, and because they do not require judicial approval because they do not involve warrantless searches, the locations and durations do not have to be announced.
That might be an even better deterrent.
So far, 11 states have banned checkpoints, but the statistics on drunken driving in those states are mixed. The issue deserves more study before the Legislature acts.