Pushback Against Federal Roadside Checkpoints Increasing

By:  Bob Adelmann
01/14/2014
       
Pushback Against Federal Roadside Checkpoints Increasing

With some 60 cities participating in federal roadside checkpoints, pushback from citizens and local police and sheriff’s departments is increasing.

In its defense, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in an e-mail:

Each year, close to 10,000 people die in drunk driving crashes: 27 people a day, or one person every 53 minutes, according to [our] data.

To better understand the issue, the agency has regularly conducted its National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving in communities across the country for over 40 years. The survey provides useful data about alcohol and drug use by drivers, and participation is completely voluntary and anonymous. More than 60 communities across the country will participate this year, many of which participated in the previous survey in 2007.

NHTSA always works closely with state and local safety officials and local law enforcement to conduct these surveys as we work to better inform our efforts to reduce drunk and drugged driving.

This disclaimer neatly avoids any discussion of privacy or unreasonable searches and seizures prohibited under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. It also raises the question of what is “voluntary” and “anonymous.” The NHTSA has contracted out the operation of these checkpoints to the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), which in turn invites off-duty police officers and sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies to help with the stops. According to USA Today, the officers flag down drivers who then are directed to park beside the road where they are questioned by PIRE employees about their driving habits. The drivers are then offered to give up cheek swabs and blood samples for cash ranging from $10 to $50.

But this is hardly “voluntary,” noted Mary Catherine Roper, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Pennsylvania:

It looks like an exercise of official authority when a cop pulls you over. People assume it’s mandatory, and of course you’re going to stop. That’s a constitutional problem right there.

Normally, police cannot pull you over unless they have a good reason for thinking you’ve done something wrong.

There’s no exemption in the Constitution for conducting a survey.

The Constitutional “problem” Roper is referring to is the 1990 Supreme Court case Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, where ....

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