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Sobriety checkpoints debated

December 28, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- With New Year's Eve festivities approaching, police departments and advocacy groups nationwide are ramping up their efforts to keep drunken drivers off the road, but one trade association says they're going about it the wrong way.

The American Beverage Institute, which represents bars and restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages, is calling for police departments to abandon the use of sobriety checkpoints in favor of roving patrols, which it argues are more effective than checkpoints.

"Because they are highly visible by design and publicized in advance, roadblocks are all too easily avoided by the chronic alcohol abusers who comprise the core of today's drunk driving problem," ABI Managing Director Sarah Longwell said in a press release.

Even if the location of a checkpoint is not publicized, it doesn't take long for word to spread throughout a bar, she said. Then, while police resources are tied up in the checkpoint, the real problem drivers are taking alternate routes, Longwell said.

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State Police in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia said they use a combination of checkpoints and roving, or "saturation" patrols to combat drunken driving throughout the year and see a use for both types.

"If you look at statistics, statistics will probably tell you a saturation patrol is more successful, but the checkpoint is an educational process," said Lt. David Kloos, barrack commander for the Maryland State Police Hagerstown barrack.

The Hagerstown barrack is receiving grant funding to conduct three checkpoints this fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, Kloos said.

In all likelihood, it will probably conduct even more, he said. To afford the extra checkpoints, the department will conduct fewer saturation patrols, he said.

"It's a take and give situation," Kloos said. "They only give me so much money and I have to decide what's best for the county."

A typical checkpoint uses about 10 troopers for five hours and costs about $2,000, he said. During the last State Police checkpoint in Hagerstown, held Oct. 31, troopers stopped 880 cars and made three DUI arrests, Kloos said. Saturation patrols watching alternate routes around the checkpoint made one additional DUI arrest, he said.

A saturation patrol without a checkpoint requires only three or four troopers and costs a fraction of what a checkpoint costs. The troopers work four hours of overtime, usually from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m., and each aims to make three to four stops per hour, Kloos said.

Departments do not always have a choice in the matter, officials said. The Washington County Sheriff's Department receives funding for DUI reduction efforts from grants that dictate how it is to be used, Sgt. Daniel Faith said.

"In the past, it's been 80 percent of these funds had to be used for DUI checkpoints," Faith said. "It's not like we have an option that we can use it for saturation patrol," he said.

Determining which is a more effective method depends on your definition of effective, police officials said.

ABI points to testimony given in Pennsylvania's State Supreme Court, where a Department of Transportation official said about 53 percent more manpower-hours are needed to make one DUI arrest at a checkpoint than during a roving patrol.

State Police officials from all three states said that is probably true, but argued checkpoints provide a deterrent that roving patrols do not.

"Checkpoints are more for a visual, so people see that there's a police presence trying to find DUI offenders," said 1st Sgt. Eric Burnett, West Virginia State Police commander for the district that includes Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties. "Maybe it's going to have them think twice before they have that last drink, because they know the State Police are going to be out there."

In 2008, Burnett's district has held seven checkpoints at a total cost of about $18,000, which have resulted in 25 DUI arrests, he said. Last fiscal year, it held 129 saturation patrols at a cost of about $22,000, which resulted in 94 DUI arrests.

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