Sobriety checkpoint bill faces long odds in Legislature

Posted Thursday, Mar. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- Efforts by officials in Arlington and across Texas to push legislation allowing police roadblocks to snare drunken drivers are facing an uphill challenge as the 2013 Legislature nears the halfway point.

It's not the first time. Sobriety checkpoint bills have died in every session of the Legislature since 1995.

While advocates on both sides of the issue embrace the goal of reining in drunken drivers, the proposals have traditionally collided with arguments that police roadblocks could lead to racial profiling, maddening traffic tie-ups and improper detainment of innocent motorists.

This year, supporters say they hope to improve their chances by including safeguards aimed at preventing law enforcement abuses while citing what they say is an urgent need to combat drunken driving. Legislation written by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, contains features designed to prevent profiling and would require law enforcement to give advance notice of the checkpoints.

"All I know is we have to get these folks off the streets," Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck says. "It's no good the way it is now."

Arlington has made the measure one of its top legislative priorities. In each of the past two years, alcoholic-related car wrecks in Arlington claimed 14 lives. In 2010, seven people died as a result of drunken-driving fatalities. The number of nonfatal Arlington car wrecks involving alcohol has climbed over the past three years, from 421 in 2010 to 456 in 2012.

Cluck said he has been pushing for sobriety checkpoint legislation for several years, citing statistics showing that checkpoints have reduced drunken-driving deaths in the nearly 40 other states that have adopted the measures. In a 2008 report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said sobriety checkpoints resulted in an overall 20 percent downturn in traffic fatalities.

"Every time, I think the numbers justify it and I think the Legislature will do it," Cluck said. "But every time, I've been disappointed."

Davis, whose Senate District 10 includes part of Arlington, said she has seen signs of movement toward the measure. "I got really close last session," she said, recalling that she was "one vote shy" of advancing the measure to the Senate floor in the 2011 Legislature.

Asked about the chances for passage in 2013, Davis said, "I'm not really sure." But she added: "I do think there have been enough high-profile drunk-driving incidents that I hope members will understand the need for these checkpoints."

One formidable opponent is Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, dean of the Senate and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "I don't think we need to require all law-abiding citizens to go through a contact point with law enforcement without probable cause," he said.

Whitmire recalled going through a sobriety checkpoint in Louisiana last summer. "It was not a good experience," he said. "We were not drinking. You've never seen so much law enforcement in your life. ... It was such a fiasco that the locals had their lawn chairs out on the side of the road watching it all. The biggest show in town."

"I don't say all that to minimize the importance of not drinking and driving," he added. "I believe intense police work will go a long way toward fixing that problem. And we do have very strict sentences."

Allen Place of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, which has traditionally fought against sobriety checkpoints, says the group opposes the concept of detaining motorists "without any sort of probable cause."

"There are other ways to enforce existing law than to make impositions on everybody who's out driving, trying to get to work, trying to get home," said Place, the association's government relations director.

Leading advocates include the Texas Police Chiefs Association, the North Texas Crime Commission, the Greater Dallas Injury Prevention Council and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Not optimistic

Bill Lewis, the Texas public policy director for MADD, engaged in the fight for sobriety checkpoints in 1995 after his daughter was severely injured in a head-on collision with a car driven by a drunken motorist. She has since recovered, but Lewis, 68, has continued to press the issue, despite perennial defeat in the Legislature.

Lewis acknowledges that he's "not terribly optimistic" about the bill's chances this time, but he cites earlier polls showing that more than two-thirds of the public support sobriety checkpoints as a deterrent to drunken driving. "We'll try to stress to the members of the Legislature that there is still a lot of support for these bills," he said.

Keller Police Chief Mark Hafner, first vice president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said checkpoints would give law enforcement "another tool in our toolbox to identify, detect and apprehend people under the influence."

Davis introduced the latest version, SB1418, last week, one day before the deadline for filing bills for the 2013 Legislative session.

The measure would require law enforcement agencies to post notice of the roadblock no later than three days in advance, providing the date, time and location of the checkpoint. The selection of the roadblock must be made "without regard to ... the ethnic or socioeconomic characteristics of the area in which the checkpoint is located," according to the bill.

Officers would also be required to ensure that the selection of vehicles to be stopped "is reasonably predictable and nonarbitrary," a provision designed to prevent random stops. Inquiries would take no longer than three minutes unless an officer found probable cause to believe the motorist had been drinking.

The bill would also impose a 10-minute maximum on the length of time for a motorist to go through the roadblock.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief, 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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