January 2014 Bar Bulletin
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January 2014 Bar Bulletin

DUI Tinkering Needs a Better Solution

By Francisco A. Duarte

 

As he crossed the threshold into the basement entry of an iconic Boston bar, the patrons, all with a drink in hand, burst into their well-rehearsed greeting, "Norm!" This was the classic scene repeated in all 275 episodes of "Cheers," which aired from 1982 to 1993. The lure of the mighty drink, and much-needed friendship, brought together the same characters day after day to exorcise their demons.

Alcohol! It's a social thing, except when it takes control over the person. That's when it may destroy lives. But its influence over most social gatherings means that even well-meaning, law-abiding people are at risk of having their own "Bad Boys" experience on the side of the road.

Now, there is no question that mixing alcohol with the chore of driving yourself home is not wise, but "everyone" does it, from true alcoholics, to soccer moms, to construction workers, to doctors, to lawyers, to judges, and even to legislators. It's pervasive. The widespread use of alcohol justifies the need for proactive enforcement, such as DUI-emphasis patrols. After all, there is universal agreement that the roads will be safer without intoxicated drivers.

The need to improve safety on the roadways also presents an opportunity for legislators to look good in the arena of public opinion. Legislators have certainly made it an annual event to tinker with the DUI laws. The problem, of course, is that many of the proposals that generate the best sound bites on the 6 o'clock news are not necessarily the best measures to reduce the number of intoxicated drivers on the road. This year we can likely expect more of the same - rhyming slogans, but no real, good public policy.

Washington drivers might encounter the return of random DUI roadblocks in the near future, especially if the Legislature accepts the proposal from the 2013 Washington Impaired Driving Work Group. The 33-member group, created by the Legislature in response to a number of alcohol-related fatalities early last year, is comprised of lawmakers, lawyers, police officers, state-agency officials, advocates, victims' families, treatment providers, ignition-interlock companies, and experts. They spent the better part of the year looking at 11 specific ideas for combating drunken driving, such as higher penalties for repeat offenders, banning repeat offenders from buying alcohol, promoting and monitoring the mandatory use of ignition interlocks, and increasing the penalties for drivers who refuse to take a breath or blood test.

DUI roadblocks came in among the top five proposals, solidly occupying the fourth spot and enjoying 82 percent of the membership's support. In promoting random DUI roadblocks, the majority emphasized that sobriety checkpoints are used in 38 states and are believed to reduce alcohol-related crashes from 15 to 30 percent. Random DUI roadblocks, however, are very controversial because they are unwarranted government intrusions that have been deemed unlawful under the Washington Constitution.

On New Year's Eve 1983, a close friend of mine, who was driving home near the stroke of midnight, was stopped for no reason at a Seattle Police checkpoint. The police had set up a roadblock for all cars traveling through the sobriety checkpoint to investigate all drivers for drunken driving. The site was selected due to the high incidence of DUI arrests and accidents known to occur at that location.

My friend, who knew that the police could not stop a Washingtonian without legal cause, was disturbed by the potential for a random police seizure and ensuing criminal investigation. The police looked for evidence of alcohol consumption and intoxication during the unwelcome encounter and, finding none, released him and permitted him to drive home.


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