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Are DWI checkpoints effective? Not everyone agrees they’re worth it

Nationally, groups such as MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, support the DWI checkpoints, noting law enforcement must be highly visible to be effective. The group believes checkpoints not only catch offenders, but serve as a warning to others not to drink and drive.
Nationally, groups such as MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, support the DWI checkpoints, noting law enforcement must be highly visible to be effective. The group believes checkpoints not only catch offenders, but serve as a warning to others not to drink and drive. Charlotte Observer file photo

Police leaders in Lake Norman believe DWI checkpoints are an effective way to target drunken drivers, and sometimes lead to arrests or citations for other infractions.

Checkpoint opponents, however, question whether the method is the most cost-efficient tool for catching impaired drivers.

“With a DWI checkpoint,” Huntersville Police Chief Cleveland Spruill said, “it is very clear that a law enforcement effort is underway specifically targeting drunk drivers. News about the checkpoint is likely to spread very rapidly and hopefully impact persons who have been consuming alcohol.”

Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle agreed. “During the checkpoints, we get arrests for outstanding warrants, drugs and other violations. They are a strong deterrent for DWI as well.”

During a five-hour DWI checkpoint on Aug. 19, near West Catawba Avenue and Nantz Road in Cornelius, one arrest for driving while impaired was made, along with 42 other violations found, ranging from arrest warrants to expired registration tags. Fifteen officers from the Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Pineville Police departments, along with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department assisted with the checkpoint.

“I think we continue them as a means of striking at a problem from as many angles as we can,” Chief Hoyle wrote in an email. “When I have a group of officers out there doing a checkpoint, we are indeed finding criminals wanted for serious crimes and many other things, but I will agree it is not always effective. Sometimes we put a checkpoint out and get no DWI’s at all. Does that mean it is not effective or does that mean the word got out and drunk drivers decided not to drive that night? We don’t know, but I can tell you that has the exact same effect either way.”

Are they worth it?

Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminal justice at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice for 20 years, has studied the checkpoint process extensively and believes that DWI checkpoints are not cost-effective.

“They freeze up a certain amount of resources standing out there on the side of the road,” Kenney said. “They also tend to tie-up traffic.”

“I will say,” Hoyle wrote, “that a lot of those criticizing always focus on money with the cost-effective argument, but any part of law enforcement you could make the same argument. Why do we do citizens academies, community projects, have officers in schools, have National Night Out, patrol the lake for problems, etc.? All of these take a lot of resources and are not based on crime reduction at all, right? It’s because we are a service organization, not mathematicians.

“There are cost-effective measures we take. I can tell you exactly when we should rotate a car out of the fleet, or replace an engine on a boat, or whether we should finance radios or purchase them outright to get the most bang for our buck. But all that can and has been measured. Social problems do not work that way. Police are here to apply pressure where we can and mix it up to try to have an effect that is positive. It is like pushing Jello — it constantly moves and squishes and that’s why after all these years we still have moonshiners, drug problems, and drunk drivers.”

Kenney and other checkpoint opponents believe DWI patrols with officers who are specially trained in detecting someone driving impaired have substantially higher arrest rates, and are thus more cost-effective.

Hoyle noted the Cornelius police do random patrols. “Our regular patrol officers are trained and always looking for drunk drivers. It is a fundamental skill and expectation on patrol — especially on weekend nights.”

“The research out there is mixed, but so is most research on law enforcement tactics,” Hoyle wrote in his email. “ If research were accurate and foolproof we would have solved by now the drug problem, domestic violence, etc. This is no different. The research I am familiar with on this topic is as mixed as it can be, but in general, there is some benefit to it if you read the studies are out there — the question is how much benefit.

“Personally, I don’t buy the cost-effective argument at all. Nothing we do is really cost effective because you cannot measure it accurately. How do we know how many people decided not to drive because they saw on Twitter there was a checkpoint somewhere. What they measure is the decrease in accidents before and after a checkpoint — or a decrease in alcohol-related accidents. That is a good measure, but it is not the only standard you can use. Deterrence is a factor as well. For example, how many times are we asked to check somebody’s house while they are on vacation, or ride through an area where residents see activity that makes them worry? If we used the cost-effective model, I would have to say we cannot do that because there have been no break-ins yet.”

Around the region

Other local law enforcement officials agree on the importance of checkpoints as a tool in reducing drunken driving.

The Mooresville Police Department supports DWI/DUI checkpoints, said Deputy Police Chief Gerald Childress. “While we recognize the impact on traffic at these checking stations, we stress the importance of keeping the roads safe and accident free.”

Huntersville Police Chief Spruill says, “While saturation patrols may have some advantages over stationary DWI checkpoints, the checkpoints have a few advantages as well with the greatest being visibility.”

Davidson Police Capt. Steve Ingram feels that both approaches — saturation patrols and checkpoints — make sense.

“The key benefits of a DWI checkpoint are deterrence and awareness. These checkpoints are highly effective when used in areas where the data support the need, such as sites with frequent alcohol-related crashes,” he said.

Ingram says that saturation patrols can also be effective. “Since the effort is mobilized, it does not share the same immediate effect of a checkpoint. However, it does work well in rural areas where the driver’s actions can be observed by the officers participating in the campaign effort.”

Larger strategy

Nationally, groups such as MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, support the checkpoints, noting law enforcement must be highly visible to be effective. The group believes checkpoints not only catch offenders, but serve as a warning to others not to drink and drive.

Funding also plays a role in the deployment of checkpoints, according to Cornelius’ Chief Hoyle. “We receive grant money to have traffic units and these checkpoints are required by the grant. So whatever the public thinks of them, they are a requirement.”

“It is statewide strategy,” Hoyle said in his email, and “right or wrong and must be done, but honestly I would do them whether it is required or not. ...

“Any deterrent whatsoever is good.”

While checkpoints are legal in both North and South Carolina, more than a dozen states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Texas, have outlawed them for a variety of reasons. For example, Texas believes they are prohibited by the U.S. Constitution because there is no state law that authorizes the checkpoints. Minnesota, Oregon and Rhode Island interpret their state constitutions as outlawing them.

However, in most states the checkpoints are legal. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that DWI checkpoints are a legal and valid law enforcement tool.

Tracy Yochum contributed: tyochum@mccnewsdesk.com

Dave Vieser is a freelance writer: davidvieser@gmail.com

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