A criminal defense lawyer recalled driving up to a police barricade recently where California Highway Patrol officers were screening all passing motorists for signs of intoxication.
"It was awesome," said the attorney with the Orange County public defender's office, which provides legal services for criminal defendants who cannot afford private attorneys. "There were vans, six or so CHP cars, signs and lights. At that point, you've totally lost control of your life."
It is that sort of intrusion on the privacy of sober motorists that led Orange County Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler to challenge the legality of sobriety checkpoints. Earlier this month, his office won a reversal of a drunk-driving conviction with a decision by a state appellate court in Santa Ana that the barricades violate citizens' rights.
Statewide, 123,594 motorists have been stopped by the Highway Patrol in the 21 months that the checkpoints have been used.
Dozens of municipalities across California also have used the roadblocks. Anaheim set up checkpoints for seven days over the New Year's holiday in 1985. A total of 6,934 motorists were stopped. One of those was the youth whose conviction was struck down by the 4th District state Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.
The legality of the checkpoints already is before the California Supreme Court. Three days after the first roadblock in California was thrown up in 1984 in Burlingame, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers went to court.
An appellate court in San Francisco found that the roadblocks were legal and constitutional. That case is before the state Supreme Court, and lawyers involved in the Santa Ana appeal say that a review by the high court will be sought in that case, too.
The effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints is not apparent in arrest statistics. Drunk-driving arrests have occurred in less than 1% of the more than 123,000 checkpoint stops statewide. The seven-day New Year program in Anaheim produced only 44 drunk-driving arrests.
In fact, statistics from around the country show that rarely do arrests at sobriety checkpoints even approach 1% of the number of motorists stopped, according to an analysis by James B. Jacobs, director of the Center for Crime and Justice at New York University.
But California Highway Patrol Commissioner James E. Smith, one of the strongest supporters of sobriety checkpoints, says their usefulness cannot be measured in arrests.
"We recognized that going in," Smith said. "They're not designed to arrest drunk drivers. They're not intended to be dragnets to prey on people."
The real point of the barricades, he says, is deterrence through publicity--keeping drunk drivers off the road by letting them know that the checkpoints exist and that they could be stopped at any time.
"The purpose of the checkpoints is not just to remove drunk drivers from the road," Smith said. "The idea, the whole stated intent and expected results of the checkpoints is that they are a tool to create a heightened awareness in the community."
Some lawyers argue, however, that even if they are effective as a deterrent to drunk driving, the checkpoints cannot be justified constitutionally.
"You're sacrificing the basic principle that police officers should focus attention on illegal activity," Joan Howarth, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said. "They think if they just stop thousands of people, they're bound to haul in some intoxicated drivers. We don't want our police officers to operate that way."
Butler remembered his own reaction when he came upon one of the roadblocks:
"As I was approaching the checkpoint, seeing all the personnel, it occurred to me that maybe their time would be better spent out on the freeway, rather than stopping people without any cause."
On the other side of the argument, however, is a formidable list of supporters of the checkpoints.
Proponents include most police and prosecutors, a presidential commission on drunk driving, citizens' groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Remove Intoxicated Drivers. A 1984 federal law provides highway safety aid to states that establish checkpoints. California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and the National Transportation Safety Board have published guidelines for operation of the roadblocks.
Much of the argument by both sides has centered on whether the state's interest in controlling drunk driving outweighs the traditional ban on police searches without warrants or suspicion of individual wrongdoing.
The roadblocks are a powerful tool for deterring drunk drivers, said state Deputy Atty. Gen. Jay W. Bloom, who was involved in the fight to uphold the legality of checkpoints in the appeal of the Anaheim case in Santa Ana.
Announced in Advance
The existence of the roadblocks is announced in advance, Bloom said, and approaching motorists can turn off to avoid them "and nobody goes after them." If a drunk driver switched places with a sober passenger before reaching the stop, "that would be fine," Bloom said.