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Monday, February 11, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Herb Robinson

Sobriety Checkpoints: The Lazy Way

ON ITS face, a state Supreme Court ruling of nearly three years ago seemed to have settled forever the lengthy disputes here and elsewhere over police roadblocks (also known in the dreadful legalese of our time as ``sobriety checkpoints'') as a technique for nailing drunken drivers.

Because of state and federal constitutional protections against unreasonable police searches, the Olympia high court said, the roadblocks by Seattle cops during the Christmas and New Year holidays of 1983-84 were illegal. (And, incidentally, they had caught only a handful of drunks.)

End of argument? Not necessarily.

Overlooked by most people at the time were some comments by Justice James Dolliver, one of the court's heavier thinkers. Although he had participated in the majority decision, Dolliver noted that it wouldn't be all that tough to write a roadblock law that could pass court muster.

Among those who filed Dolliver's remarks for future reference were leaders of the Washington State Medical Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving along with medical-emergency experts such as those at Harborview Hospital's Injury Prevention and Research Center.

All these people long have believed - despite a dearth of thoroughly factual supportive data - that checkpoints are the best single deterrent against intoxicated drivers.

So in Olympia today, legislation to authorize roadway stops has become a centerpiece of the medical association's package of highway-safety bills in the 1991 Legislature.

Taking note of Dolliver's comments in 1988, drafters of the legislation have tried to skirt constitutional problems by requiring prior Superior Court review and issuance of ``areawide search warrants'' before local police could set up a sobriety-checkpoint program.

Also prescribed are fairly stiff standards and guidelines intended to prevent police abuses and to minimize inconveniences to law-abiding drivers. For example, locations and times of checkpoints would have to be chosen and announced well in advance, based on arrest figures and other data demonstrating that the selected areas are prone to substantial drinking-driver problems.

Dr. Fred Rivara of the Harborview research center says insurance-industry studies indicate that extensive advance publicity about roadblocks creates a deterrent effect throughout a community. That's because, Rivara says, drinking drivers get the idea there's a high risk of detection no matter where they might go.

Regular or even special mobile police patrols - the alternative cited most often by roadblock opponents - aren't effective, Rivara says, because the likelihood that a drinking driver will be arrested ordinarily is only about 1 in 2,000. And the chances of receiving serious punishment after arrest are ``statistically insignificant.''

Meantime, Rivara says, an opinion survey conducted late last year for the state Traffic Safety Commission showed that nearly 54 percent of Washington adults approve of sobriety checkpoints.

Why the medical profession's continuing pressure for deterrents to drinking?

Mostly because booze accounts for far too much of the burden borne by hospital emergency rooms. At Harborview, for instance, 45 percent of those admitted for injuries of all kinds, ranging from traffic accidents to domestic violence, are terribly drunk when they are brought in. And fully half of this group are people with chronic alcohol problems.

``Other kinds of drugs get most of the attention,'' says Dr. Abe Bergman, Harborview's director of pediatrics and a point man for the medical association in Olympia. ``But what we see in the emergency rooms more often than not involves excessive drinking.''

Among victims of highway crashes involving alcohol, young people account for a disproportionate share of the losses. Despite improvements in traffic safety overall, alcohol-related collisions are still the leading cause of death and disability for people aged 16 to 24.

Remembering that more than 400 people continue to die on Washington highways each year, Bergman wonders about attitudes and values: ``If we lost 200 or 300 of our kids in the Persian Gulf, the public in our state would just go crazy.''

Because it touches bedrock issues involving the basic rights of citizens living in a free society, the police-roadblock dispute is broader and more complicated than it looks.

The U.S. Supreme Court held several months ago that a sobriety-checkpoint program in Michigan did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution. (The U.S. Constitution is not as strict as its Washington state counterpart in limiting police searches.)

The reasoning by six of the nine justices was that driving a car is a dangerous and regulated activity, and that citizens in their cars are not as immune from police intrusions as when they are in their own homes.

In this state, a return to sobriety checkpoints should be a cause for mixed feelings. The drinking-driver problem still warrants special countermeasures, of course.

Still, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said years ago, ``the right to be let alone (is) the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.''

And, as syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer commented on these pages awhile back, sobriety roadblocks typify the American habit of taking the lazy road toward resolving serious social problems such as drunken driving or drug abuse.

``Today it is sobriety checkpoints,'' Krauthammer wrote. ``Yesterday it was mandatory drug testing . . . The path of least resistance is always to violate privacy first.''

Herb Robinson's column appears Monday and Friday on The Times' editorial page.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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