Sunday, September 05, 1999

Old-fashioned challenge to road checkpoints on target

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Checkpoints to catch drunken drivers are OK, says the U.S. Supreme Court. No they're not, say the Friends of Liberty.

        There are 25 of them, all from Louisville. They include a retired factory worker, a college student, a small-business owner and a middle-school teacher.

        They're against police stopping motorists who aren't behaving suspiciously, on the off chance the motorists are drunk. Last month, five Friends went before a state legislative committee to argue their case.

        It's a tough one. About 39 percent of all traffic deaths involve alcohol, the federal government says. That's down from 57 percent in 1982, but it's still too many. Police road checks send the message that such recklessness will not be tolerated. Most people probably don't mind giving up a little privacy for the cause.

        The Friends don't have fancy degrees or armies of assistants to research the law. They sometimes get carried away, likening our police tactics to those of Nazi Germany. This isn't fair. Most cops are well-intentioned, and some are heroes.

        Nevertheless, the Friends are right about road checks.

        “We think stopping a person without probable cause is absolutely wrong,” says Ron Greene, a history teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Louisville.

        The state police say they'll do anything to keep highways safe, and road checks are legal as long as police don't single out motorists. This means they must stop cars in a systematic fashion — every fifth or every other one, for example.

        The public interest in safe roads outweighs the inconvenience to individuals, says the U.S. Supreme Court.

        I don't have a fancy degree, either. But this one bugs me.

        Drunken driving is terrible. But American society is always facing some terrible problem — drugs, guns, child abuse, domestic violence, juvenile crime. The beauty of the Constitution is that it holds certain principles constant no matter what the present calamity.

        In 1986, the Michigan state police set up a checkpoint that resulted in two arrests out of 126 stops, for a rate of 1.6 percent. The average motorist was delayed 25 seconds.

        Six of nine Supreme Court justices upheld the practice. They likened it to a border post at which authorities check every car for illegal immigrants.

        The three dissenters scoffed. Border checks are permanent features that take no one by surprise, they said. By contrast, Michigan's temporary check was held from midnight to 1 a.m. Furthermore, police have other ways to ferret out drunken drivers, such as observing their drunken driving.

        At Kentucky State Police headquarters, Lt. Kevin Payne said he doesn't have statistics to demonstrate the effectiveness of road checks. From personal experience, he says, they work better than roving patrols.

        Last month, the Friends of Liberty spoke to Sen. David Williams, R-Burkesville, and other members of the Judiciary Committee. Theirs is probably the minority view, Mr. Williams says.

        “A lot of people believe if you put the Bill of Rights on the ballot, it might not pass,” he says.

        If that's true, it's only because most people don't vote.

        I like the Friends of Liberty. They're not out stockpiling weapons in Idaho or joining the Southern Party to secede from the union.

        Instead, they're using the process. I bet every one of them votes.

        Go to it, Friends.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at