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Are sobriety checkpoints in Sequim’s traffic future?

Gov. Chris Gregoire unveiled a plan on Jan. 7 calling for the use of sobriety checkpoints across Washington in an effort to help curb drunken driving in the state.

The plan would allow law enforcement agencies with areas of frequent accidents to set up roadblocks, stopping each car (excluding emergency service vehicles) and checking if drivers are operating vehicles under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The plan has the outspoken support of law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Sequim Police Department.

According to Sgt. Kenneth Almberg, who is part of the department’s traffic safety division, most drunken drivers in the Sequim area are coming from the 7 Cedars Casino. The division already engages in something similar to sobriety checkpoints, occasionally putting up a sign reading “Warning: Police Traffic Safety Check Area.”

“We took the leadership on that, warning people that we’re up to something down the road. What they’re talking about, though, is putting up roadblocks,” Almberg said.

Although every car would be stopped at a sobriety checkpoint, this doesn’t mean every driver would be subjected to a Breathalyzer test or made to walk a straight line.

“You just open the window. If they can’t find their driver’s license or their wallet, then they can hit the curb for further testing. Usually you can tell if a driver is three sheets to the wind,” Almberg said.

While the proposal has received the support of state law enforcement agencies, other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, believe the plan is far too “Big Brother,” if not completely illegal.

“It violates our state constitution,” ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said, adding that the plan violates a person’s privacy rights by stopping individuals for no reason. In 1988, in a case titled Seattle vs. Mesiani, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that sobriety checkpoints were against the law, saying that they were in direct violation of the state’s constitution.

So if sobriety checkpoints violate the state constitution, then why is Gregoire even proposing such a thing?

There’s a loophole. As the plan proposes, legislation would be put into place allowing law enforcement agencies to set up checkpoints, but only if they receive permission from a local Superior Court. According to John Lane of the governor’s executive policy office, the agencies also must provide the court with a specific plan of action, including location and time frame, as well as giving significant notice to the public — 20 days.

“It doesn’t solve the problem with the constitution at all,” Honig counters.

Honig believes, rather than going against the constitution, law enforcement agencies should engage in more frequent “emphasis patrols,” which are basically patrols using extra enforcement, i.e. more officers. According to Almberg, emphasis patrols and sobriety checkpoints are quite similar, although a checkpoint is a much more detailed operation.

“If the Washington Supreme Court says we can do it, then like any other emphasis patrol we have to gear up for that. It will be a cooperative effort between the county, the city and the State Patrol because you’re going to need a lot of officers to block a highway, and then file them all down and make sure you have a chase car for the people who see the roadblock and turn around and go the other way. It takes quite a bit of effort,” Almberg said.

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