Police Sobriety Checkpoints May Come To An End In Missouri

By Paul Gaita 04/13/17

A new bill threatens to dissolve the checkpoints which officers argue are effective and necessary. 

A car stopped at a police checkpoint.

The Missouri House voted to support a ban in the current budget bill that would virtually eliminate state funding for police sobriety checkpoints—which critics say are both ineffective in preventing drunk-driving incidents, and violate rights and protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

House Bill 4, which passed on April 6, reduces state funding for sobriety checkpoints—which processes street traffic through a group of officers who check for DWI (driving while intoxicated) motorists—to one dollar, though local law enforcement may continue to fund them through their own budgets.

But proponents of checkpoints, which include the Missouri Peace Officers Association, insist they are an effective deterrent against drunk drivers and help police spot other offenses.

Though the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that checkpoints are a "minimal" and acceptable intrusion—based on the benefits of preventing DWI incidents—they are prohibited in 12 states, including Texas, Minnesota and Oregon, through state statutes or court rulings.

Public opinion on the efficacy of checkpoints is divided; an informal poll of drivers in Springfield, Missouri by a local TV station found both support and dissent based on issues of personal safety and efficiency.

For Major Dale Schmidt, executive director of the Missouri Peace Officers Association, they remain an easy way to spot a number of offenses at the same time. "We make a lot of good other arrests, because we're coming into contact with so many people," he said.

For the Republican representatives who backed the bill in the April 6 vote, other issues outweigh the arrest rate. "This is a guilty until you're proven innocent type situation," said Rep. Robert Ross. "It's against due process."

Others, like Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, argued that social media has made checkpoints obsolete. "Everybody knows when a checkpoint is in operation," he said. "There are literally apps that make people aware of that."

Many argue in favor of "saturation patrols," in which additional police officers are deployed to high traffic roadways during selected periods of time to stop DWI incidents; studies have shown that such patrols can be as effective or more effective than checkpoints in stopping impaired drivers who might be able to avoid checkpoints. Many police departments also favor them for their relative ease of operation and need for fewer officers than checkpoints.

Rep. Justin Hill, who previously served as a Missouri police officer, favors saturation patrols because they offer a less predictable—and less avoidable—means of deterrent. "If you know where the cops are, you're going to avoid it."

Following the House vote, House Bill 4 will be the subject of public hearings in Jefferson City before it goes before the Senate.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.