Let’s look at some of the proposed solutions to the DUI/DWI problem:
Lower the Legal BAC
Historically, the BAC for automatic categorization as “drunk driving” was .15%. This was, and is, the level where impairment is usually readily discernable. Most fatal and serious accidents involving alcohol continue to reflect .15% or higher BACs.
The current .08% BAC, now employed in all states, represents a lowest common denominator approach. It was adopted to expedite the arrest and conviction of drivers who do not necessarily exhibit visible levels of impairment. It is the DUI equivalent of the 55 mph speed limit. Lowering the legal BAC to this level is little more than an example of pandering to neoprohibitionists.
Lowered BAC levels serve to intimidate casual and social drinkers and give the police unbridled discretion to test and arrest almost anyone who has been drinking. Meanwhile, true drunk drivers floating along with .25% BACs continue to wreak havoc on the highways. A law enforcement officer cannot be looking for swerving, careening drunks if he is tied up with the processing of some miscreant who had four beers at the church picnic and blew a .08% BAC, after a traffic stop for a burned out license plate bulb.
Roadblocks (Sobriety Checkpoints)
Sobriety checkpoints are police roadblocks and that is what we will call them, police roadblocks.
Police roadblocks are symbolic and characteristic of police states. They should be anathema to any person with an historical perspective of how authoritarian governments exercise control over their citizens. Roadblocks are meant to intimidate and restrict the movement of people, goods, and ideas. No free society should tolerate any precedent that rationalizes the use of roadblocks.
When the U.S. Supreme Court approved the use of roadblocks for DUI enforcement, they opened a Pandora’s box of abuses. The Court addressed the issue solely from the DUI perspective. Police agencies have interpreted this decision as a license to set up roadblocks for any purpose they choose.
Currently roadblocks are used for vehicle safety inspections, seatbelt use, driver’s license possession, mandated insurance coverage requirements, and even to restrict the movement of people from one neighborhood to another neighborhood, on public streets!
The notion that severe penalties can deter drunk drivers has some validity. However, that deterrence often lasts no longer than the length of the punishment.
The individuals who personify the public’s image of a drunk driver are not typically swayed by “get tough” laws. However, a responsible, social drinker, apprehended in a “sobriety checkpoint,” could well find himself facing license revocation, jail time, five years of horrendous insurance surcharges, and possibly the loss of his job. It happens every single day to people who have hurt no one and who are not a threat to anyone’s well-being.
Draconian penalties are promoted by persons who are primarily interested in an overall assault on the use of alcohol, or are motivated by revenge. Developing solutions to the complicated problem of drunk driving and the resulting tragedies is not one of their priorities.
Administrative License Suspension
Because the consequences of a DUI conviction can be so severe, many defendants have taken their cases to trial (one of the unintended consequences of harsh penalties). This, in turn, clogged the courts and lead to long delays before the final judgment, usually “guilty,” was rendered and the errant driver was ordered from the road.
The promoted solution to this problem has been to take the defendant’s driver’s license before the trial. In other words, apply the punishment first and worry about guilt or innocence at some later date. In almost any other context, this would be viewed as a ludicrous system of justice, but not DUI.
To avoid constitutional challenges, the proponents of A.L.S. (administrative license suspension) always offer the opportunity for a perfunctory or superficial administrative hearing. These are kangaroo courts designed to process defendants as quickly and cheaply as possible. Any similarity to a fair trial is illusory.
Just as with roadblocks, the danger of A.L.S. is the precedent it expands. (The word “expands” is used because the right to a fair trial for many traffic violations has already been severely eroded to the point of being invisible.)
Do we just continue to limit access to the courts because the system cannot handle the flood of new “criminals”?
Keep in mind that although the vast majority of DUI defendants have not been involved in an accident nor have they hurt anyone, the penalties they face are extremely harsh, in fact, more harsh than the punishment for many crimes against property and persons. However, some states, and the U.S. Supreme Court, do not believe that the DUI defendant is even entitled to a jury trial (unless the penalty includes over six months in jail).