Gregoire wants to allow sobriety checkpoints

Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to set up roadblocks and stop drivers to weed out drunks.

In an effort to toughen the state’s drunken driving laws, Gregoire is scheduled Monday to announce plans to recommend sobriety checkpoints.

“It’s always a priority of the governor to make the roadways as safe as possible for Washington families,” said Aaron Toso, the governor’s press secretary.

Law enforcement officials and anti-drunken-driving advocates cheered the announcement while defense attorneys and motorists-rights groups said the roadblocks would limit personal freedoms and may be unconstitutional.

“I’ve always supported sobriety checkpoints and I’m glad the governor is going to do this,” Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick said. “I think it’s a great piece of her agenda.”

Washington is one of 10 states nationwide where police are prohibited from randomly stopping drivers to check to see if they may be drunk.

Research has shown that the checkpoints reduce fatalities, crashes and injuries by up to 24 percent, said Misty Moyse, a national spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“We support sobriety checkpoints. They’re one of the most effective tools we have to reduce fatal crashes,” she said.

In its annual drunken driving report card, Mothers Against Drunk Driving ranked Washington state 40th, noting police here “still cannot do sobriety checkpoints.”

Some defense attorneys who represent people accused of drunken driving said the roadblock proposal would be contrary to the basic freedoms guaranteed under the state constitution.

“The basic concept is that people are allowed to travel unfettered by governmental conduct unless there’s a reason to believe there’s a violation,” said Doug Cowan, a Kirkland-based lawyer and author of “Defending DUIs in Washington,” a textbook for attorneys. “Checkpoints are completely contrary to that concept.”

Everett-based defense attorney Steve Ashlock said any law permitting sobriety checkpoints would likely be tested on constitutional grounds.

“The use of these sobriety checkpoints is highly questionable and it will surely be challenged,” Ashlock said.

In 1990, a U.S. Supreme Court decision found that the checkpoints, when implemented within strict guidelines, are constitutional. Two years earlier, a state Supreme Court decision ruled checkpoints are unconstitutional under Washington law.

It was unclear Friday exactly how Gregoire’s plan might mesh with the differing court rulings on roadblocks. Even if the legislature approved a roadblock law, the state’s high court could still rule against the practice, lawyers said.

“The state Supreme Court is free to afford greater protection to citizens of the state (than guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution), and they’ve done so in the past,” Ashlock said.

The governor’s office refused to discuss details of her roadblock plan prior to Monday’s event.

“One of the most effective tools in reducing drunk driving has been determined to be checkpoints,” Washington Traffic Safety Commission director Lowell Porter said.

States that allow roadblocks and combine them with effective enforcement have shown significant decreases in fatal collisions, he said.

State troopers already have increased enforcement. The Washington State Patrol last year pulled over a record 3,400 suspected drunken drivers in Snohomish County, helping to reduce the number of fatalities, officials said.

Statewide, traffic deaths were down about 13 percent in 2007 from the previous year.

Roadblocks are efficient ways to nab drunken drivers, Lovick said.

“If we’re able to save a few lives and keep people from drinking and driving, I think it’s worth it,” he said.

Checkpoints don’t catch drunken drivers — they intimidate the public, said Jim Baxter, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a motorists rights group based near Madison, Wis. More drunks are caught through targeted enforcement, he said.

“We don’t believe in a free society (these checkpoints) should be done,” Baxter said. “We believe people should be able to travel freely and not be fearful of being stopped to show their papers. This is the kind of practice we used to associate with Iron Curtain regimes.”

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

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