Sobriety checkpoints: Proven effective, constitutionally sound

  • By Janice E. Ellis and John Lovick
  • Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:59am

“I believe a sobriety checkpoint can be constitutionally permissible because of the State’s unique governmental interest and the public’s concern over the gravity of drunk driving, the effectiveness of checkpoints in deterring and detecting drunk drivers, and the minimal intrusion into the driver’s privacy. It is a legislative question as to whether such a program shall be authorized and implemented.”

These are not our words. These are the words of state Supreme Court Justice William Dolliver, written almost 20 years ago in the case that struck down a city of Seattle sobriety checkpoint program as unconstitutional. City of Seattle v. Mesiani, 110 Wn.2d 454, 465, 755 P.2d 775 (1988). The court found the program violated our state constitution because it was not established by ordinance or statute and therefore lacked “authority of law.” Id. at 456.

Justice Dolliver’s opinion set forth a road map for what he believed a checkpoint program would need to include to comply with Article 1, section 7 of our state constitution. The standards that he set forth almost two decades ago are the foundation for HB 2711, the sobriety checkpoint bill requested by Gov. Chris Gregoire. There is no question in our minds that the bill, which was crafted with the assistance of the state Attorney General’s Office, exceeds the standards identified by Justice Dolliver and that it will save lives.

For decades, law enforcement officers and criminal prosecutors have worked vigorously to reduce the toll imposed by impaired drivers. We do so because we know that, nationally, motor vehicle crashes are the number 1 cause of death for people between the ages of 2 and 34. We work on the roads to remove drunk drivers, in courtrooms to hold offenders accountable, and in the legislature to strengthen our roadway safety laws. Our efforts have produced results: during a time of significant population growth in our state, fatalities decreased from 712 to 647 during the 10 years between 1996 and 2005 (41 percent of the 2005 fatalities involved drinking drivers). Here in Snohomish County, we had 919 crashes involving impaired drivers in 2006. Of those, 36 were fatalities and 65 were serious injury crashes.

Our law enforcement community will not rest until impaired driving is eradicated. Many, including the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, hold emphasis patrols throughout the year, particularly on popular partying nights. The Washington State Patrol’s 2000 strategic plan set the ambitious goal of eliminating fatalities and disabling injuries by 2030 — a decrease of 24 fatalities per year. To help accomplish the goal, the WSP identified sobriety checkpoints as one of its two highest priorities for reducing highway fatalities. The patrol prioritized sobriety checkpoints because they have been found constitutional by our U. S. Supreme Court, are available in 39 states, and are a proven countermeasure to impaired driving. The literature reports that checkpoints reduce alcohol-related fatal, injury and property damage cases each by about 20 percent.

Sure, a sobriety checkpoint will increase our travel time every once in a while — we’ve come to expect delays when we enter airports, cross borders and visit our courthouse. But, we’ll trade the occasional inconvenience on our city streets for one less trip on I-5 that is gridlocked because of a fatality accident, one less notification visit to the family of a driver killed on Route 2, or one less vehicular homicide case to try. The 30 seconds we spend at a sobriety checkpoint will save lives, and one of those lives could be yours.

Janice E. Ellis is Snohomish County prosecuting attorney, and John Lovick is sheriff of Snohomish County.

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