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Police DUI checkpoints viewed as educational

September 07, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

TRI-STATE - In Maryland and West Virginia, state police treat drunken-driving checkpoints as much as an educational tool as they do a means to charge people who are caught driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Although the checkpoints are conducted several times a year, some officers believe people aren't learning to stay off the road while impaired.

Maryland State Police Lt. Greg Johnston said all checkpoints are announced so people know where and when they are occurring.

"A big part of it is to educate the public that we're out there," Johnston said. "That may stop people from drinking and driving, but we never have one without making an arrest."

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West Virginia 1st Sgt. T.R. Mayle, district commander for the Eastern Panhandle area, said he does not believe authorities are making headway because the number of people charged during the checkpoints stays constant or grows each year.

"It is frustrating," Mayle said. "Every time you go to a wreck with a drunk driver, you feel like people just don't get the ramifications of getting behind the wheel."

Maryland State Police have conducted two checkpoints this year in Washington County, with about 24 officers present each time, Johnston said. West Virginia State Police have conducted three this year, with about 11 officers present, in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.

Pennsylvania State Police did not respond to requests for information on drunken-driving checkpoints and drunken-driving statistics.

Local Maryland and West Virginia state police are scheduled to conduct other checkpoints within a month.

Officers in Maryland and West Virginia said there also are roving patrols - "saturation patrols" - at some of the checkpoints and throughout the year to look for impaired drivers in areas where crashes are common.

Johnston and Mayle said each of their checkpoints is broken into two main roadside phases, though West Virginia officers also greet motorists preliminarily and ask them to have documents ready.

During the first part of the process, motorists are ordered to the side of the road and briefly confronted by police, they said. They said officers are looking for evidence of impaired drivers such as the smell of alcohol or bloodshot, glassy eyes.

While those who do not demonstrate some of the many signs of drunken driving are sent on their way, those who do move to roadside testing, Johnston and Mayle said. During the second phase, officers subject drivers to field sobriety tests outside of the vehicle that include reciting the alphabet and walking heel to toe.

Those who fail - determined by the officer's judgment - are charged and taken into custody, police said.

"You're not going to make an arrest if you don't think probable cause will be found in court," Johnston said.

In West Virginia, those who are arrested immediately are taken to a holding cell inside a mobile-trailer unit, dubbed the "Batmobile," and tested using the Intoximeter, which measures a person's alcohol level, Mayle said.

In Maryland, Johnston said offenders are brought to police headquarters to use the same apparatus.

Johnston said anyone who measures a blood alcohol level of .08 or more is charged with driving under the influence, though drivers can be charged with driving while impaired if they register a .07.

Comparatively, West Virginia does not differentiate between the charges, and cites motorists for driving under the influence if they register a .08.

Johnston said the following maximum penalties apply for those convicted on charges of driving under the influence in Maryland: A first offense carries penalties of up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine; a second offense, two years in prison and a $2,000 fine; and a third offense, three years in prison and a $3,000 fine.

Mayle said these maximum penalties apply for a conviction in West Virginia: A first offense carries penalties of up to six months in prison and $500; second offense, up to one year in prison and $3,000; and a third offense, three years in prison and $5,000.

"If you get that third offense, you're going to the state penitentiary," Mayle said. "We get a lot of those."

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