Cop block: Metro police use roadblocks to catch drunk drivers. Is that the best way to do it?

roadblock: Photo by Jane Mattingly  Metro police assessed traffic at a roadblock in West Louisville last weekend.

roadblock: Photo by Jane Mattingly Metro police assessed traffic at a roadblock in West Louisville last weekend.

About a half-hour after the Saturday night roadblock on South 22nd Street began, police were questioning a parking lot full of people. Drug dogs were searching their cars. The ostensible reason for such a thing — official all-night police roadblocks are quite frequent, especially when the weather is nice — is to curb drunk drivers or violators of the state’s seatbelt law, according to Maj. Don Burbrink of Metro Police. All told, seven people were busted for DUI and three guns were recovered, but most of those arrested turned out to be low-level drug offenders.

Forty-two officers from Metro Corrections, Vehicle Enforcement, the Sheriff’s Department and Metro Police converged on 22nd and Standard Avenue, in Louisville’s West End, for the “Sobriety & Safety Checkpoint.” Police officers from every division were called out to assist, and every single car going south on 22nd Street after 11 p.m. was stopped.

Why target that area? Maj. Yvette Gentry of the Second Division, where the checkpoint took place, told me there were 11 fatal traffic accidents in the West End last year.

“Having these types of fatal accidents was never really a problem for us in the past, but that was something that really hit us,” she said. “When we started to look at our numbers, we just decided it was time to take a more aggressive approach.”

Roadblocks have been in use nationally since the late 1980s and have since been championed by the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving as a major factor in reducing the number of alcohol-related crashes. The constitutionality of the roadblock came into question in 1990, when a Michigan man took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 6-3 decision, the court decided that roadblocks were constitutional, even though Chief Justice William Rehnquist and other assenting members acknowledged that roadblocks were a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

This is what some attorneys and judges call the “DUI exception” to the Constitution. Ten states ignored the decision and decided they wouldn’t let roadblocks take place under any circumstances.

The effectiveness of roadblocks has also come into question in the years since. After a number of field studies, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that “the number of DWI arrests made by the roving patrol program was nearly three times the average number of DWI arrests made by the checkpoint programs.” When asked about the effectiveness of roadblocks, Angela Criswell, executive director of the Kentucky chapter of MADD, said, “They’re an effective deterrent when done correctly.”

About the constitutionality of roadblocks, Criswell said, “Infringement is minimal in these situations,” and that “strong public support was the reason that they were upheld in the Supreme Court, who is the final arbiter.”

Louisville attorney Gary Stewart, who handles DUI cases, supports the idea of roadblocks, but only to a certain extent.

“They are used to target certain people, and that’s where I have a problem with them,” he said. “If you’re going to do them, you’ve got to do them everywhere, and that obviously does not occur.”

Since its inception in 1980, MADD has become one of the most powerful lobbies in the country. Candace Lightner founded the organization after a drunk driver killed her daughter in a hit-and-run in California. However, their membership and sway over lawmakers ballooned in 1988, after Larry Mahoney killed 27 people in what has become known as the Carrollton bus crash on I-71 near Carrollton, Ky.

It was around this time that the organization took a much harder stance on drunk driving. MADD called for tougher laws, including one that would make it illegal for someone to drive while having any level of alcohol in their system. After the bill failed, the organization adjusted its priorities to lowering the illegal blood alcohol level to .08 and increasing the prevalence of roadblocks and ignition-interlock devices. MADD continues to promote roadblocks, using statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control that say roadblocks have reduced drunk driving fatalities by 20 percent. However, the number of alcohol-related accidents and fatalities has leveled off over the years.

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