Sobriety checks would need judges’ OK, Gregoire says

LYNNWOOD — Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to give police a new tool to catch drunken drivers, but only with a judge’s permission first.

If the governor can get the Legislature to agree, Washington would join 39 other states and set up sobriety checkpoints, randomly checking drivers to see if they’re drunk.

The governor’s plan seeks to get around a 1988 state Supreme Court decision banning roadside checkpoints by requiring that a judge first approve and later review their limited and restricted use, she said.

“It’s a different day than it was 20 years ago,” Gregoire said Monday at a press event at Meadowdale High School, surrounded by local and state law enforcement and road safety advocates.

Too many people are killed on the state’s roads, and law enforcement should be able to use every tool available to curb the deaths, she said. Some advocates for the roadblocks cite statistics showing they have reduced drunken-driving deaths by nearly 25 percent in states where they are employed.

Sheriff John Lovick, who just left the Legislature to take the county’s top law enforcement job, said he would have introduced checkpoint legislation this year had he remained in Olympia.

Already, personal liberty groups are speaking out against the plan.

“The ACLU agrees with the state Supreme Court, which has recognized that it’s improper under the state constitution to stop motorists when they haven’t done anything wrong,” said Doug Honig, an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman. “It interferes with law-abiding people’s right to travel.”

Gregoire said her plan was carefully developed to meet the standards set by the state’s high court.

Under the plan, police would have to use traffic data for a specific section of roadway to convince a judge to issue a warrant that would allow them to set up a checkpoint. That data includes the number of alcohol-related crashes, arrests, injuries and fatalities.

Once the judge approves a checkpoint, police would be required to report back to show how many vehicles were stopped and how many people were arrested for drunken driving.

The plan is somewhat similar to what police in Washington already must do when they have enough evidence to convince a judge to let them to set up a telephone wiretap.

Honig said Gregoire’s plan still violates the state constitution.

Warrants usually are issued as part of a criminal investigation where there is a showing of probable cause to believe evidence of a crime will be found.

Gregoire’s plan is specific to a location, but not to who could be stopped.

For warrants authorizing drunken driving stops to be legal, they must follow the same rules that are applied to other police searches, Honig said.

Still, officials argue that checkpoints are an important missing piece in Washington’s battle against drunken driving.

From 2004 through 2006, the number of alcohol-related fatalities in the state has increased nearly 30 percent, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. In 2006, 257 people died in Washington in drunken driving crashes. Data for 2007 is still being compiled.

Sobriety checkpoints are effective tools, officials said.

Fatal crashes drop as much as 23 percent where checkpoints are used, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“Why would we turn away from a tool that would be incredibly effective?” asked Shelly Baldwin, who studies drunken driving for the traffic safety commission.

Others are less convinced.

John Junker, a University of Washington law professor, studies sobriety checkpoints.

His data shows that 1 percent of people stopped at checkpoints are arrested.

“On that grounds, it doesn’t seem like a very effective way to use (police) resources,” Junker said.

The state constitution isn’t clear on defining the rights of individuals, and that creates some murkiness around the legality of police roadblocks targeting drunken drivers, Junker said.

“I’m sure that it will be immediately attacked” in court, he said.

For Lisa McCollum, the idea of sobriety checkpoints is personal.

Nearly seven years ago, her mother-in-law was killed by a drunken driver.

“Anything preventative is logical and should happen,” McCollum said. She scorns critics who claim the roadblocks infringe on their rights or are a bother.

Being delayed in a roadblock is an inconvenience she can tolerate.

“I personally would be willing to sacrifice to save lives,” she said. “People shouldn’t lose their lives to impaired drivers and if checkpoints can be a deterrent, it just makes sense.”

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or jholtz@heraldnet.com.

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