The recently upheld authority of police to set up sobriety checkpoints could be endangered if officers fail to protect "the constitutional rights of the people being stopped," state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said Monday in Newport Beach.
Speaking at a convention of police officials from across California, Van de Kamp said the checkpoints are a "very valuable tool" for deterring drunk driving, but only if officers take precautions "to minimize the intrusion on individual rights."
Orange County law enforcement officials in attendance applauded the address, with one police chief saying Van de Kamp was "definitely in line with the philosophy of law enforcement in Orange County."
An Oct. 29 California Supreme Court decision upheld police authority to use the checkpoints, in which motorists are systematically stopped at a roadblock by uniformed officers searching for drunk drivers.
The court's 4-3 decision established guidelines for the checkpoints, which largely follow those of a non-binding opinion issued by Van de Kamp's office in 1984. Use of the roadblocks had been suspended while the issue was argued before the courts.
The guidelines require that the checkpoints be publicized in advance, supervised by high-level officials, based on a neutral formula (such as stopping every fifth driver), set up at safe and reasonable locations and designed to delay motorists for only a minimal amount of time.
No legislation specifically authorizes the use of sobriety checkpoints in California, and Van de Kamp told the police officials Monday that "it is important to remember that this stop-and-search procedure (is) not normally permitted under our system of law."
The courts have tolerated the roadblocks because of an overriding concern for highway safety, Van de Kamp said, and because police in the test case had conducted themselves "with proper respect for the law."
In an address that was largely a lecture in the proper use of the checkpoints, the attorney general said he sought "to urge every law enforcement jurisdiction in the state to make good use of (the court) victory."
The attorney general said that the use of roadblocks "cannot be an arbitrary or capricious action by officers in the field. . . . It takes no great imagination to picture the kinds of abuses that occur if any team of officers were free to declare any location an instant checkpoint."
Van de Kamp also told police, "We may not stop only those people whose looks we don't like or who strike us as vaguely suspicious."
Orange County police officials attending the conference responded enthusiastically to Van de Kamp's remarks.
Nail on the Head
"With the holidays coming, I think the attorney general hit the nail on the head," said Ronald R. Lowenberg, the police chief of Cypress.
"It's clear that we in law enforcement have to do what's necessary to stop drunk driving, but we have to protect the rights and privileges of the law-abiding citizens.
Tustin Police Chief Charles C. Thayer said Van de Kamp's "comments about being aware of people's civil liberties were excellent. His comments were definitely in line with the philosophy of law enforcement in Orange County."
David D. Snowden, Costa Mesa's police chief, said that the attorney general "was right on target" but that the imposition of the checkpoints was unlikely in his city.
"We have such a traffic problem in Costa Mesa, it would be tough to do it," Snowden said.