LONG BEACH — Santa Claus will not be the only one standing on street corners this Christmas. The police will be there, too, stopping motorists at roadblocks and looking for drunk drivers.
With a recent state Supreme Court decision paving the way, local police have decided to set up "safety checkpoints" before Christmas.
The sobriety checkpoints will be used during the holidays and at other times to look for drivers under the influence of alcohol and drugs, as well as to check for equipment violations such as broken taillights and to give out safety information, police said.
This will be the first time Long Beach police have established checkpoints. The technique had been used by the California Highway Patrol and some other police agencies until it was blocked by the justices last year pending a ruling on its constitutionality.
In a 4-3 decision on Oct. 29, the Supreme Court rejected arguments by civil libertarians that a motorist should be stopped only when there is an "individualized suspicion" that the driver is intoxicated.
Long Beach police Cmdr. Charles Parks said the checkpoints will "aid in our removing people off the streets who are impaired because of alcohol and/or drugs."
"We'll probably be ready to do it within the next two weeks. We're working on putting it all together, so that we're well within the parameters of the law," said Parks, who is in charge of the traffic enforcement division.
The recent court decision was not the only factor influencing Long Beach police to decide to start checkpoints, Parks said.
"We are three fatalities ahead of where we were the same time last year," he said. There have been 46 traffic-related fatalities in the city so far this year.
Another concern is the sharp increase in the number of drunk driving arrests this year, Parks said. Between January and March, police arrested 52 people for drunk driving. Police Chief Lawrence Binkley then set up a new four-member "DUI Team" whose sole job is to look for drunk drivers, he said. Between April and October, the four officers arrested 306 drunk drivers.
Those numbers, Parks said, "tell me we have a problem." He called the number of drunk drivers on the road "frightening."
The guidelines set down by the court call for police to establish a formula--such as stopping every fifth driver--and set up safe and reasonable locations designed to delay the motorists for only a minimal time.
While police have not decided on the formula they will use, Parks said officers will be consistent. "Say you stop every third car and the fourth car looks like a really bad dude, you have to let him go," Parks said.
Lt. Philip King said that if a driver stopped in a safety checkpoint appears to be under the influence, he or she will be asked to step outside and an officer will take the driver's car and park it nearby. Police would then conduct a field sobriety test, which includes walking a straight line, heel-to-toe.
The signs that would lead an officer to conduct a field sobriety test include the strong smell of alcohol, slurred speech or a driver who appears to have problems maneuvering a vehicle, police said.
"Most of it is going to be an educational program for the motoring public," King said. "What we're going to do, I believe, is pass information on drinking and driving and the use of drugs. It's more of a stop and 'Here, we have some information for you.' And at the same time, (we can) look at the drivers."
Drivers will be delayed only "a matter of seconds," Parks said. "It should be done within 20 to 30 seconds."
King said Long Beach police are looking at the program as "good public relations contact" and hope that the drivers "appreciate it."
Public Safety Is the Goal
In the divided court decision last month, the majority of the justices concluded that sobriety checkpoints, like airport metal detectors, are aimed primarily at promoting public safety and not obtaining evidence of a crime.
"Stopping the carnage wrought on California highways by drunk drivers is a concern the importance of which is difficult to overestimate," Justice Marcus M. Kaufman wrote for the majority. Any intrusion on privacy rights, Kaufman said, "is easily outweighed and justified by the magnitude of the drunk-driving menace and the potential for deterrence."
The court's dissenters said the ruling invited "pervasive" violations of privacy.
"If we abandon constitutional protections to combat every abhorrent crime which has captured the public's attention, we will find ourselves naked and unprotected in a hurry," wrote Justice Allen E. Broussard in the dissenting opinion.